The Robert J. Wicks interview on restoring ‘Perspective’

Cover of Perspective by Dr Robert J Wicks

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Millions of souls are in trauma this week. Headlines are heralding: Deadly fighting in the Middle East, Ukrainian troops battling separatists, a mass shooting in another American community, militias killing innocents in Africa. And, next week? Tragically, the headlines will replace these locations with others.

Here is help: Psychologist Dr. Robert J. Wicks is known around the world for helping to restore lives traumatized by such conflicts. He has served in the wake of massive tragedies, such as conflicts that swept across Rwanda and Cambodia. He regularly helps aid workers, medical professionals as well as men and women serving in the U.S. military.

But, this week, as we prepared the text of this interview about his new book, Perspective: The Calm Within the Storm, the author Debra Darvick reminded us of a fresh viewpoint on his work. In her review of the new book, Debra writes from the perspective of a nearly overwhelmed young mother in a typical American home, crying out: “I just want to have perspective! I want to know that everything is going to turn out OK.”

Alas! Perspective is more elusive than ever. In 2014, most of us assume that our powerful global media network allows us to look into any event anywhere. Not too many years ago, Americans were hard pressed to find any news reports out of Africa. Today, Americans can tap on our smartphones to zoom into Africa and—in just one example—we can choose from hundreds of news reports on the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram.

But our access to information is not the same as … perspective. In fact, psychologist Dr. David Myers writes this week that many of our daily choices about who we choose to associate with can wind up contributing to a loss of perspective. Myers’ column examines tragic divisions within Islam—but the four principles he outlines can help all of us bridge divisions.

In this time of crisis, we need new perspectives. This summer, Dr. Robert J. Wicks is holding out his hand and offering a small volume that shows a girl on the cover standing on a shoreline. Look at the book’s cover for a moment. Is that girl enjoying a vacation? Or, is she contemplating suicide? Is she a rich American teenager at her family’s summer home? Or, is she a refugee dreaming of a ship that might carry her away and save her life?

What you see in that book’s cover is all a matter of … perspective. In this new volume, Wicks isn’t playing games with readers. This book is built like a Craftsman Tool Chest, inviting you to pull out the drawers packed with the particular kinds of tools you need right now.

In her review of the new book, Debra Davick also writes, “Wicks structured this clear and useful book so that it is rich with bullet points, questionnaires for self-reflection, and carefully honed text bytes that can form the basis for a lifetime of step-by-step personal transformation. In addition to explication, educative text and recollections drawn from his own life and that of other seekers, philosophers, and authors—Wicks shares insights culled from the most up-to-date research in cognitive behavioral therapy and the psychology of optimism.”

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Dr. Robert J. Wicks. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH DR. ROBERT J. WICKS
ON ‘PERSPECTIVE’

DAVID: This new book brings together new insights in many fields of research—from psychology and therapy to spiritual direction—on effective ways to survive after we pass through life’s inevitable waves of suffering. I’m going to describe it as a toolbox of ideas for rediscovering a fresh, healthy and hopeful perspective on living. How is that as a summary?

Dr Robert J Wicks author of PerspectiveROBERT: Good! That’s exactly what I wanted to do with this book. The core point in the book is that it’s not the amount of darkness in the world, in your country or your family or even within your own life—it’s how we stand in the darkness. How we view something can be the pearl of great price. There are people in the world who have so little and yet they are able to focus on the world in such a way that fulfills them, and also puts them in a position to share freely with others without expecting anything in return.

DAVID: As a journalist, I’ve covered the ongoing research into Americans’ growing sense of “necessities.” The list of what we think we must have for a happy life has grown extensively over the past half a century. Your book points out that the solution to restoring a healthy perspective doesn’t involve wealth. You can’t buy “perspective.”

ROBERT: There are three illusory pathways in life. One is that we need “more.” Frequently, when people feel they need more, they go out and get more—but then they simply feel they need even more. It’s an illusory pathway.

Others may think they need something “different,” but once they get that different thing—it quickly begins to feel the same. Still others wait for “perfect” to come along. And while they are waiting for this illusory perfection, they allow life to pass them by.

Rather than those three dead ends, I ask people to look at what they already have and how they can access it even more. In doing that, I’m not saying people shouldn’t get something more or something different or something better than what they have right now, but I am saying that the real question for each of us is: How do we access what we already have in ways that will deepen our lives?

DAVID: You describe many kinds of trauma in your book: death of a loved one, cancer, destructive storms, financial disaster, war, abuse and chronic pain. As I finished your book, I understood you to be saying: Some form of serious suffering will come to each of us and, broadly speaking, whatever you are suffering—there are some general principles that can keep our minds and spirits clear and functioning in healthy, hopeful ways.

ROBERT: Yes. What happens is that we think of life as acute. We’re facing one difficult thing right now and we want to solve that problem in front of us. If we face that problem, we may be able to solve it, and then we think that we’re fine. That’s if we think of life as acute.

But spirituality and now psychology remind us that life is chronic. We will always have peaks and valleys, some higher and some lower. It’s what we do with the chronic ups and downs that defines our lives.

When I think of this, I think of the contemplative Thomas Merton who one day was passing a room where he saw an old monk. Merton went in and asked how he was doing.

The old monk said, “I feel awful! I may be losing my faith.”

Merton smiled at the old fellow and said, “Courage comes and goes. Hold on for the next supply.”

We need patience and that’s not really sold to people today. We need perseverance and we need courage. Those three elements come not just out of the air, but out of discipline. This comes from things like carefully planning to take alone time, which is one of the examples I write about in the book.

‘THE PEARL OF GREAT PRICE’

DAVID: I love that Merton story and this message you’re describing is summarized on the opening page of your book, where you first mention this metaphor of “a pearl of great price.” Let me read a few lines from that page:

“When someone gains or regains a healthy sense of perspective, it feels like pure magic. The person sees more clearly and experiences greater freedom. Unforeseen possibility surfaces. New peace and joy are seeded.

“The situation hasn’t changed. Unwanted occurrences aren’t denied or minimized: Instead, they are faced and explored differently—not with unrealistic expectations or the projection of blame, harshness, or self-recrimination, but with a sense of intrigue. There is a realization that whatever ‘darkness,’ suffering, confusion, or potentially addictive attraction may be present in the moment, it is not the end of the story. It is not the last word.

“And so, having the passion and tools to continually seek out a healthier perspective is not simply a good idea. No, it is much more than that. It is actually a determining factor as to how life can be enjoyed more completely and shared more fully every minute of one’s day. Having a healthy perspective is tantamount to possessing the psychological pearl of great price.”

I think millions of Americans could find help through your new book. That especially includes Americans who have served in the armed forces—or have veterans in their families.

‘A LOT OF GHOSTS IN THIS ROOM’

ROBERT: That’s one of the major audiences for this book. I work in an ongoing way with the military. I was a Marine Corps officer myself. I recently got back from a speaking tour on four bases in England where we have stationed some U.S. Air Force personnel. I also spoke to members of NATO and to some of the people who are involved in the troubles in Africa. When I speak to these groups, it’s clear that they have gone through a lot of both acute and chronic suffering. That’s true for their families, as well. When our military personnel are deployed overseas with their families, we need to remember that we are deploying a whole family.

I remember before one speaking engagement, a colonel pulled me aside and said, “Be careful as you talk. There are a lot of ghosts in this room with us.”

One thing that has struck me: I am overwhelmed by the sense of generosity and gratitude from the military people I work with. They have a sense that, when their military service is ending, they want to integrate that service they have been providing into new ways of paying back society. I’m so glad that the president and others are encouraging Americans to hire veterans. When you hire a vet, you’re hiring experience and depth of personality.

‘WE DON’T HAVE ENOUGH TIME TO THINK’

DAVID: I want to ask you about a major theme in the book—to give readers of this interview a sense of the kinds of topics they’ll explore with you in these pages. I was most impressed with your section on “mindfulness.” There’s hardly a more over-used word in spirituality, these days. Yet your book does a great job of defining it in solid ways. One conclusion you draw that may surprise readers: Mindfulness is not religion.

ROBERT: No, it’s not. It’s an attitude that we almost take for granted. We assume that we’re attentive and aware in our lives—but, for most of us, that’s not true. I had the privilege of speaking to some members of the U.S. Congress and their chiefs of staff. A senator talked about the greatest challenge facing Congress today: “We don’t have enough time to think,” he said.

Mindfulness is an attitude that’s really worth trying. We have to carefully think about and find ways to take a breath each day. Maybe that’s in the shower, during a walk at lunch, in a visit to the library. This is essential, especially if you’re involved in intense work. Most people don’t stop to think about how contaminated they are every day and they’re not planning for ways to deal with that contamination.

‘YOU NEED TO DECONTAMINATE’

Wash Your Hands sign in South Korea 2013

U.S. service personnel can’t miss this sign! The huge plywood reminder was set up at Camp Baldwin in South Korea before meals. Photo by Elisandro Diaz, released for public use.

DAVID: I am struck by that word “contamination” and I think it’s a helpful word for readers to consider. So, please talk a little more about how you use that word.

ROBERT: What happens is that, during each day, we encounter a lot of thoughts, emotions and actions in our life that have a negative side to them. We can begin to feel helplessness, doubt, anger, fear, shame—a sense that there is no meaning in life. When we experience these negative thoughts, actions and emotions around us, each day, we need to do something about it so that we don’t remain stuck in them ourselves. If we do, we will carry them around with us and contaminate others.

Think about the sign in a restaurant’s washroom: “All employees must wash their hands.” Those signs hang in hospitals, too, reminding us to sanitize our hands throughout the day.

I like to take that kind of medical metaphor and apply it to the psychological and spiritual. Stop and think about how you go home after a full day of work. Think about this if you’re a caregiver—especially if you’re someone caught in the sandwich generation caring for both your children and your parents. Before you reach home after a hard day, you need to decontaminate. We need to reflect objectively on the peaks and valleys of the day and subjectively on how we reacted to those experiences. Without taking time for reflection, we just move on with our lives and we carry contamination with us as we go.

For me, mindfulness, alone time, time in reflection—these are ways to decontaminate ourselves. When I have intense interactions in my day, I always build time into my schedule so that I don’t take carry these experiences on to the next person I encounter.

‘LOVE IS REALLY AT THE HEART OF LIFE’

DAVID: Compassion is a major theme that runs throughout your book. I want to point this out to readers, because loads of popular books on spirituality and psychology are selling skills that claim to provide a selfish kind of success. Look around and you’ll see book after book promising that you’ll “win” or “make money” or achieve “success” through the techniques the author is hawking.

You’re aiming at a different goal: Compassion.

ROBERT: I believe that people lose their sense of balance, a key element in perspective, if we don’t have a sense of true compassion: giving to others and expecting nothing in return. We might call it a sense of mitzvah.

Even a lot of people who we consider to be religious aren’t really using their prayer time to be alone with God; they’re using the time to be alone with themselves or to try to get something for themselves from God. They lose the realization that they’re part of something much bigger.

Without balance in our lives, we run the danger of hedonism that masquerades as social justice. We think: I deserve this! I should get this!

A lot of publishers today aren’t interested in books that are about serving or helping the other person. They think that people will only buy books to help themselves feel better—or books that will tell them how to go out and get more. Thinking of the other person becomes a counter-cultural message. That’s why I appreciate publishing this book with Oxford, because they’re open to counter-cultural ideas like this.

When we become narcissistic and egocentric, we fail to see that a spirit of humility is key to gaining a healthy perspective. I emphasize this because, when you take knowledge and add humility, you get wisdom. And when you take that very wisdom and add compassion, it becomes love. And, love is really at the heart of life.

People who have love at the heart of their lives can maintain a healthy perspective no matter what is going on around them.

CARE TO READ MORE?

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

 

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With Groups

Dr. David Myers: Psychology of Sunni-Shi’a division is wisdom we all can use

Map of the Islamic World

MAP of THE MUSLIM WORLD: Click on this map to see it in a larger format. The nations colored dark green on the map are predominantly Muslim, illustrating the fact that most of the world’s Muslims are not Arab. According to Pew worldwide research, the largest Muslim countries, ranked in order of Muslim population, are: Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, China, Syria, Malaysia, Russia and Niger.

David Myers

Click the logo to read David Myers’ “Talk Psych” columns.

HOPE COLLEGE Professor of Psychology DAVID MYERS is a household name among college students and teachers, because he is the author of textbooks widely used on college campuses. His scientific writings, supported by National Science Foundation grants and fellowships, have appeared in three dozen academic periodicals, including Science, the American Scientist and the American Psychologist. Myers recently wrote a fascinating column on psychological principles behind Sunni-Shi’a conflict within Islam. He invited us to share his thoughts …

Psychology of the Sunni-Shi’a Divide

Why is there so much animosity
between groups that seem so similar?

This excerpt is used with the author’s permission. The full text originally appeared in POLITICO magazine, where you can read Dr. Myers’ entire column. Dr. Myers opens his column by explaining that Sunni-Shi’a divisions do have deep historical roots—but, he notes, so did the long and brutal Catholic-Protestant conflicts in Ireland. In addition to historical factors, Myers suggests four psychological principles are at work in such divisions. Thoughtful readers will realize that these factors are crucial for understanding a wide range of inter-religious and cross-cultural conflicts. Myers writes …

1) No matter our similarities with others, our attention focuses on differences.

In the 1970s when the Yale psychologist William McGuire invited children to “tell us about yourself,” they zeroed in on their distinctiveness. Those who were foreign-born often mentioned their birthplaces. Redheads volunteered their hair color. Minority children mentioned their race. “If I am a Black woman in a group of White women, I tend to think of myself as a Black,” McGuire and his colleagues observed. “If I move to a group of Black men, my blackness loses salience and I become more conscious of being a woman.” Straight folks sometimes wonder why gay folks are so conscious of their sexual identity, though in a predominantly gay culture the sexual identity self-consciousness would be reversed.

So when people of two subcultures are nearly identical, they often overlook their kinship and become laser-focused on their small differences. Freud recognized this phenomenon: “Of two neighboring towns, each is the other’s most jealous rival; every little canton looks down upon the others with contempt. Closely related races keep one another at arm’s length; the South German cannot endure the North German, the Englishman casts every kind of aspersion upon the Scot, the Spaniard despises the Portuguese.”

2) We naturally divide our worlds into “us” and “them,” ingroup and outgroup.

We inherited our Stone Age ancestors’ need to belong, to live in groups. There was safety in solidarity. Whether hunting, defending or attacking, 10 hands were better than two. Like them, we form social identities.

But the benefits come at a cost. Mentally drawing a circle that defines “us” also defines “them.” Moreover, an “ingroup bias”—a preference for one’s own community—soon follows. In experiments,even those in arbitrarily created groups tend to favor their own group. In studies by Henri Tajfel, Michael Billig and others,people grouped together by something as random as a coin toss or the last digit of their driver’s licenses felt a twinge of kinship with their number-mates, and favored their own group when dividing rewards.

3) Discussion among those of like mind often produces “group polarization.”

In one of my own early experiments, George Bishop and I discovered that when highly prejudiced students discussed racial issues, they became more prejudiced. When less prejudiced students talked among themselves, they became even more accepting. In other words, ideological separation plus conversation equaled greater polarization between the two groups.

So it goes in real life too. Analysis of terrorist organi­zations, for instance, has revealed that the terrorist mentality does not erupt suddenly, on a whim. It begins slowly, among people who share a grievance. As they interact in isolation, their views grow more and more extreme.

By connecting like-minded people, the Internet’s virtual groups often harness group polarization for good purposes, as when connecting and strengthening fellow peacemakers, cancer survivors and rights advocates. But the Internet echo chamber also enables climate-change skeptics and conspiracy theorists to amplify their shared ideas and suspicions. White supremacists become more racist. Militia members become more hostile. For good or ill, socially networked birds of a feather gain support for their shared beliefs, suspicions and inclinations.

4) Group solidarity soars when facing a common enemy.

From laboratory experiments to America immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, shared threats foster unity. During conflict, we-feeling rises. During wars, patriotism surges.

In one of psychology’s famous experiments, the psychologist Muzafer Sherif, in 1954, randomly split Oklahoma City boy campers into two groups for a series of competitive activities, with prizes for the victors. Over the ensuing two weeks, ingroup pride and outgroup hostility increased—marked by food wars, fistfights and ransacked cabins. Intergroup contacts yielded more threats—and stronger feelings of ingroup unity—until Sherif engaged the boys in cooperative efforts toward shared goals, such as moving a stuck truck or restoring the camp water supply.

YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY reading David Myers’ online columns with Dr. Nathan DeWall in Talk Psych.

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Categories: MuslimPeacemaking