Thursday, May 24, 2007

How Do People Change?

I am reading a book that is much deeper than its title (Branded: Adolescents Converting from Consumer Faith, by Katherine Turpin, ISBN 0-8298-1738-7) might at first suggest. The author contends that our western culture has been so inundated with consumerism (the idea that what we buy or possess is what makes us who we are) that we need to experience conversion. It is not enough, she says, to want to change our orientation (to be less preoccupied with material possessions, for example). Our consumerist way of life is one that needs to be challenged and converted at a much deeper level.

Parents and others who work with children, especially children who are "different" from others, often wonder how to help our children change. How, for example, do you help a child diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) become more socially appropriate and responsive to authority? Or what does it take to move a person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to a more relaxed, less anxiety-ridden life?

While the author does not address issues related to special needs parenting, her work has provoked my thinking. I wonder if there might be corollaries between her desire to provide a means of conversion beyond consumerism to the work many of us do with special needs children?

There are several thoughts I am working with at this moment ...

(1) Insight is not enough. (The author's phrase, not mine). In a helpfully written section of her book, Turpin contrasts the goals of psychological therapies with the way of ancient Christian authors. In traditional psychological therapy the therapeutic goal is to help the client become "insightful." Turpin puts it this way: "[R]ight understanding leaders to right belief which leads to right practice" (68). Change in this system of thought occurs because an individual learns or acquires enough insight to see why change is necessary; then change can result in that person's life. This is the therapeutic modality many of us parents have encountered when accompanying our children to a counseling session. We listen to the therapist do his or her best move our child to a place of insight, the assumption being that when our son or daughter "understands" how hie or her behavior affects others change will occur.

And yet, I have to ask, how many parents leave therapy sessions wondering why they bothered in the first place? Exactly how much insight is a multiple-diagnosis child going to acquire? For the child whose brain has been organically damaged due to prenatal exposure to alcohol or other chemicals, what does "insight" look like? For the ODD adolescent, is there even a remote possibility s/he is open to insight at all? I just wonder how much some of the foundational tenets of traditional psychology apply to children with special needs?

(2) If not insight, then what? The author's contrast to the traditional means of change described above is to look back to the ancient means of spiritual formation, or to use more religious language "conversion." The reverse was true for the ancient, spiritually inclined: if one wanted to understand the insights of the acknowledged "spiritual" ones, the first task was to "mimic their lives" (69). The concern was less with getting the thinking right and more with addressing behavior to begin with. It was the change in behavior or habits, then, that resulted in a change of insight.

So ... what might this mean? For starters, maybe there is some value in recognizing that children do not always have to understand why a parent insists on a particular behavioral expectation. For example, in our home it is the expectation that we will worship together every Sunday. Some people assume (and our children often, as well) that this is only because of my vocational life and if, for some reason, I ceased being a pastor our worship commitment would change. While there is no way to currently prove this supposition, we have had occasional "conversations" with our children about this issue, and for us it is simply non-negotiable, regardless of what their father does for a living. It is that valuable to us, and so our children conform to that behavior, although it is sometimes with some tension involved. I have encountered too many parents who say to me, "Well, we don't want to force religion down our children's throats. We want them to want to be in church." Certainly that is the desire of any church-going family, but the truth is that behavior precedes insight. And it does for adults, too. There are Sunday mornings when I do not particularly "feel" like getting up early to lead two worship services, but when I make the behavioral choice to do so, I am always grateful. The insight comes after the behavior. Perhaps we need to worry less about our children "getting" it and more about them "doing" it.

But here is not what I'm saying. I do not believe that parents should be bullies, or dictators or enforcers. I do believe that parents should model what they expect, that parents should identify clearly what are non-negotiables, and that parents should persist in ensuring (to the best of their ability) that behavior, whether or not the child's "insight" is present.

What would it be like in our society if all of us ... child or adult ... acted with integrity in ways we know to be best, regardless of our feelings, our supposed insight or desire? I suspect we would live in a much different world.

Widespread Misunderstanding

Maybe I'm just unusual this way, but when I'm traveling (especially when I'm traveling alone and have no one else I know to distract me) I have a tendency to listen in to other people's conversations around me. I don't go out of my way to do so, and I never stop what I'm doing long enough to stare or otherwise identify my auditory voyeurism, but I do find it fascinating to hear what others around me have to say.

Last week while I was visiting Monticello I had to opportunity to hear snippets of many conversations. There were numerous groups of school-age students meandering about, with their shrieking and babbling tendencies. There are three features of these groups that intrigue me: (1) the students themselves, (2) the adult caretakers, whether teachers, staff or parent volunteers, and (3) the onlookers, not associated with the group, but drawn by observation.

As I sat waiting outside the gift shop beneath Monticello's imposing presence, I watched a group of seven 5th grade boys interacting together. What I witnessed should not have been surprising to me since we have raised a number of fifth grade boys over the years ourselves. There were the requisite pushing and elbowing interactions aided with the obnoxious gestures and pseudo-threatening phrases of approaching adolescence. In the small group there was, of course, the standard fifth grade prepubertal boy chomping on a huge, gift-store-size sucker, at 9:00 AM, much to the derision of several of his comrades. The energy, emotional and physical, I witnessed made me breathe a silent prayer of thanks to God that I was visiting Monticello alone.

Then there were the already beleaguered responsible adults, standing nearby, craning their necks for the minute-by-minute "count" to make sure their charges were safely present. Some were dressed casually for a day with the kids, while others looked a little more professional (perhaps these were the teachers), but all wore the sublimated grimace of adults who were counting the minutes until they could board the buses back home to be released from their obligation of the day.

In particular, and this is the overheard conversation that most stands out to me from that scene, were a couple of casually dressed, pre-retirement individuals. Stereotypically they appeared to my eyes to be blue collar workers, skilled but not academically trained, fairly black and white in their judgments of life and naive about the issues that face special needs children. Here is the brief conversation I picked up while awaiting the next tour:

Female: Doesn't he [a particularly "busy" child in question] remind you of Brandon?
Male: Huh?
Female: You know, how he could never quite settle down and focus?
Male: Oh, yeah.
Female: Yeah, I think they call that bipolar or something now.
Male: Ummm?
Female: You know, where they just spin and spin and can't never settle down?
Male: Yeah.

The interchange interested me because of the "typical" interchange between the male and female conversational partners, in which the female offered her observations and the male placidly responds. I also found it intriguing because the behavior she witnessed in a student she did not know reminded her of someone she did know; as a result she felt from her initial observation that she understood what the unknown child's issues really were, when in fact, it is unlikely she did. And, of course, the most glaring misunderstanding in her confusing what sounds like ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) with Bipolar disorder. While the two may have some similarities, they are not the same thing at all.

It reminded me of how often those of us with special needs children are subject to a similar misunderstanding. The casual observer really does not understand, nor can fully appreciate, what life is life with or for those who have mental health issues. And those of us who do understand as a result of personal experience need to be patient, although not necessarily silent, in the face of widespread misunderstanding.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

War and [or?] Peace?

Since yesterday's news and consequent blog, I have been thinking a great deal about the condition of our world and our human responses to its challenges. Last week I took a week of vacation in the state of Virginia, where I spent blessedly full days revisiting historical events of the past four centuries. Virginia, you may know, is really where it all began for what was to become the United States of America. In the late 1500s was the mysterious and ill-fated Roanoke settlement, but in 1604 it was Jamestown that set the mark for future exploration and expansion of what we know call the USA. So, I spent my time visiting colonial sites (like Jamestown and Yorktown, where more than a century later the Revolutionary War ended). I "spent time" with several presidents, including Woodrow Wilson (his birthplace and presidential library are in Staunton), Thomas Jefferson (his Monticello), James Monroe (Ash Lawn) and James Madison (Montpelier).

These were all fascinating visits, but perhaps my most intriguing day was spent in Lexington, Virginia, home of Civil War General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, the burial site of Robert E. Lee, and the Virginia Military Institute.

In particular, as I have been pondering the issues of war and peace, I have thought back to my day in Lexington, Virginia. Serendipitously, I was in Lexington on the day of Virginia Military Institute's impressive "parade." Steeped in tradition, it was a moment for me to look into the eyes of some our country's best young men and women, most of whom will be engaged in military service following their graduation from VMI. I couldn't help but ask myself which of those I watched parading in military fashion before me would give their lives in military service. It was a moment for me to experience some sense of patriotism and gratitude for those who are doing what I have not done.

I suppose one of the lingering remembrances of my "military immersion" last week is how none of the historical figures I "spent time with" longed for war and its consequent devastation. "Stonewall" Jackson responded out of a sense of duty and desire to protect his native Virginia. Robert E. Lee, a gracious southern gentleman by all accounts, was reluctant to become engaged in the Civil War as a general, but responded to what he understood to be a grave situation.

And I was quite impressed with George C. Marshall, a military man (and a VMI graduate) from the beginning of his life. When he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953 there was criticism from many corners that a "military man" is not an appropriate expression of the Nobel laureate. To these criticisms, he said this in his Nobel lecture:

There has been considerable comment over the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to a soldier. I am afraid this does not seem as remarkable to me as it quite evidently appears to others. I know a great deal of the horrors and tragedies of war. Today, as chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission, it is my duty to supervise the construction and maintenance of military cemeteries in many countries overseas, particularly in Western Europe. The cost of war in human lives is constantly spread before me, written neatly in many ledgers whose columns are gravestones. I am deeply moved to find some means or method of avoiding another calamity of war. Almost daily I hear from the wives, or mothers, or families of the fallen. The tragedy of the aftermath is almost constantly before me.
Although at heart I am a pacifist, I am also a realist. As a man of the cloth I have seen both the very best humanity has to offer and, on occasion, the very worst. What theologians call "sin" and philosophers call "the human predicament" is very much a part of the world in which we live. So while my heart yearns for peace, my mind haunts me that "war" (in whatever form it rears its ugly, hoary head) may always be with us.

Today I am humbled and grateful for those who have led through history not as war-mongers but as ones sensing a call as deep as my own to serve with dignity, honor and in behalf of those who, mercifully, never have to witness firsthand the hell that is war.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Of Heroic Proportions

Minutes ago I received news that disrupts the soul and squeezes the chest. Family friends of ours from our previous pastoral appointment learned this morning that their 21-year-old son, Andrew, sustained injuries from a Humvee accident in Iraq. Andrew, a United States Army private, was driving the vehicle when it was hit by an IED. His injuries have resulted in both of his legs being amputated.

I knew Andrew from the time he was thirteen until he departed late last spring for duty in Iraq. I was his pastor for seven years. He and our oldest son graduated from high school together three years ago. Andrew and I (mutually) endured each other during his two years of confirmation classes, although I can say that I often enjoyed witnessing his energy level, his wit and his surprisingly insightful questions or comments during those classes.

It's funny ... during those years many of us wondered what Andrew would one day do with his life. Academics were not exactly his forte, and he didn't express much interest in further academic work beyond the high school level. And when he made it clear that military service was in his future I wondered how that would go for him. Everything I heard in those early months of his preparation, though, made me proud of what he was doing. He successfully completed boot camp, and it seemed that military service would be an excellent option for him.

It was, of course, a very difficult day last spring when we as a congregation, and I as their pastor, wished Andrew and Cody (another young man serving our country in Iraq) a God-blessed departure. In the final worship service before their deployment, we gathered around these two young men, laying hands of support and blessing upon them for their journey ahead. It remains for me one of the most profound experiences of my pastoral life, for these two were among the first ninth graders (in my first two successive years) I had laid hands of confirmation blessing upon years earlier. I was struck then, and now, with how quickly our children grow and move into adulthood. In but a blink of the eye they make that mysterious transition from dependency to independence, assuming responsibilities and roles many of us older ones shrink back from.

As a pastor in a denomination which has historically championed the cause of peace over warfare (and has often had the unpopular role of representing peace in the midst of international turmoil), it is with mixed emotions that I consider how Andrew's young life has been changed. Perhaps the real issue is that I wonder how I myself would have confronted such a looming challenge when I was a young man of 21. I'm not sure I would have had the strength and the fortitude to reach deep within to confront such a challenge. But I believe Andrew has that strength. It is strength that stems from the very place that motivated his desire to serve in the armed forces in the first place. It is a strength I cannot claim knowledge of, but one I have witnessed in Andrew's life, both at the time of his deployment, and one that I anticipate in this time of life transition.

As I remarked in an email earlier today to his parents, I never thought I would say this when I knew Andrew as a fourteen-year-old confirmand, but Andrew is a hero in my book, a brave, courageous young man who has given more for his country than most of us will ever realize. While most of us will continue to argue the philosophical merits of war/no war, or complain about the increasing prices of gas (due, we are told, in part to the Iraq War), in this young man (as in so many other women and men bravely serving in a difficult environment) we have someone of heroic proportions.

Thank you, Andrew, for giving yourself to a cause bigger than yourself, and for sacrificing more than most of us will ever be called upon to give.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Some Things Turn Out Differently Than You Might Expect

I guess that's one of the strongest learnings I have had as an adoptive parent. Because I am not a parent by birth I do not know if this is a similar experience, but I suspect that it is. I have listened to many parents by birth who speak of their children -- emerging from the same womb with the same DNA properties -- in this way. There is often surprise that given nearly identical origins (and I know that can be argued from a philosophical standpoint, because no two people truly have the exact same experiences in life), children can grow up to be so different from one another.

If you read my wife's blog you know that I am away this week on a personal vacation. I am in Old Dominion, the State of Virginia, where I am enjoying the historical sites (and there are many, many historical sites in this state which date back to the founding of Jamestown in 1607) and where tomorrow I will attend a genealogy conference. I have never taken a trip quite like this before, one that has no apparent "business" (read that church-related) or "family" (read that adoption-related) purpose. I have already had a remarkable two days, and I am expecting more intellectual stimulation before my return home in a few days.

In any case, I have most recently (today, in fact) been struck by two very interesting anomalies.

Anomaly #1: Thomas Jefferson. I spent a glorious morning at Monticello, where I had some time to wander by myself and explore this most interesting haven of our third president. I began my time at the cemetery (which seems ghoulish until you consider my genealogical propensities as well as my pastoral familiarity with cemeteries) in which Jefferson and a number of his descendants are buried. Jefferson, you may remember, defended the proposition that church and state must be separate. He was an acknowledged critic of institutional religion, and had little time for those who proposed that Christ was more than a good human teacher. (In fact, "the Jefferson Bible" was his attempt to excise from the New Testament all but those texts he felt appropriate; in effect he removed anything which made claims for Jesus Christ being divine). He spoke in Deistic terms (as many of the founding fathers) of a malevolent presence in the universe, but he was decidedly not an "orthodox Christian." His tombstone, in fact, records what he considered to be his most significant exploits:

"Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the declaration of American independence, of the statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and father of the University of Virginia. Born April 2, 1743 O.S. Died July 4, 1826."

Here's the anomaly ... in his life Jefferson could not accept statements about the distinctiveness of Jesus Christ, yet in his death he is winged with crosses on at least three visible stones nearby. Immediately to the left of Jefferson's burial site is his grandson, George Wythe Randolph (born March 18, 1818; died April 3, 1867). Prominently displayed on the stone are these words of resurrection promise from the New Testament: "And the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall rise incorruptible"! Among other citations on nearby stones: "In the sure hope of certain resurrection," "the Lord knoweth them that are his," "her children rise up and call her blessed." Some things turn out differently than you might expect.

Anomaly #2: James Madison. And then there's James Madison who had no birth children with Dolley (who had been widowed). She brought one child into their relationship. Madison, of course, is the Father of Constitution, one of the most venerable characters of the Revolutionary period. His work in recording the daily proceedings of those debating the merits of the constitution stand as historical testimony to his interest in future generations. Dolley was the one who saved important White House documents during the British burning of Washington in the War of 1812. She was recognized before, during and after her husband's two terms as president as one of the foremost hostesses Washington had ever seen. Her funeral, it is said, drew more people than any previous funerals in the capital city. One would expect that their son would follow in his parents' footsteps, offering himself for public service, distinguishing himself in his country's service. Instead he died a dissolute man, his life debauched with addiction, gambling and failure. Some things turn out differently than you might expect.

And so, if Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had posthumous surprises, I guess those of us living in the real world parenting children with challenges shouldn't be so surprised either. For better or for worse.