Friday, July 10, 2009

The Teen Whisperer: Reversing Right and Wrong

Reversing Right and Wrong
by Tiger Todd

"The pendulum of the mind oscillates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong” - Carl Gustav Jung, Psychologist, 1875-1961

Sometimes, a decade or two can go by before we understand what really happened.

Every now and then, the voices in my head are replaced by videos in my head. These videos recount the moments from my former “lives” where I wish I had done something differently. One such moment was when I had been selected as the starting pitcher for our junior high softball team. This memory begins with the thrill of victory, and ends all too quickly in the agony of defeat…or at least I thought it had. It wasn’t until I observed a similar experience years later - like a deja vu - with a friend’s son at a junior high school tennis tournament that I learned that some memories can be rewritten.

Each afternoon during junior high softball practice, I would repeatedly pitch the ball right over the plate and right through the strike zone. This accuracy and consistency had earned me the job of starting pitcher for our season-opener against Boulder City, and with it, some junior high celebrity. If you’ve ever been selected as number one at anything, it is a feeling you can get used to very easily. I was walking tall from the moment I was chosen…right up to the point when the coach pulled me in the 4th inning of that fateful game. Did he pull me because I couldn’t find the strike zone and walked too many batters? On the contrary; I had pitched too perfectly. It was the same way I had pitched in practice, but now every batter was knocking my beautiful pitches all the way to the fence! How little my underdeveloped teen brain really knew about the “big picture” back then.

Dean Drummond: "Baby, high school's over. "
Prudie Drummond: "High school's never over."
The Jane Austin Book Club, 2007

"Age merely shows what children we remain."
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

When my friend’s son Chandler was in junior high, he had no equal playing tennis for his school. Consequently, he was selected to play in a citywide tournament at the Monte Carlo Hotel in Las Vegas. Watching his first match unfold as an adult, I was immediately impressed by the boy’s composure on the court. But it was his “purpose” on the court that raised some concern. Rather than challenge his opponent with his usual winners, Chandler seemed to take pleasure in setting up his opponent with lob after beautiful lob, only to watch helplessly as his beautiful lobs were unmercifully returned to his side of the net at twice the speed of sound. His parents were mortified, having just witnessed their son’s decimation in the very first match. I, on the other hand, was beginning to see a parallel to my own junior high school failures and just maybe I could keep him from bigger failures to come.

It takes more than practice to make perfect

“The world is governed more by appearance than realities, so that it is fully as necessary to seem to know something as to know it.” - Daniel Webster

Between matches, I took Chandler to the McDonald’s in the food court and shared my softball experience with him- and my most recent revelation about his tennis strategy. “You know, you aren’t supposed to play tennis in competition the same way you do in practice,” I counseled. “Huh?” he grunted, in that very special way that teens do, their lower lip about to leak saliva. I then explained that at softball practice, my coach wanted me to pitch balls in the strike zone so the other players could practice hitting the ball, much in the same way tennis coaches encourage their players to carry on long rallies so both players get ample practice. What my coach failed to explain was that the way to pitch in competition was just the opposite from the way to pitch in practice! Maybe my coach assumed that I had watched baseball growing up - which I hadn’t - or that my teenage self had a fully developed frontal lobe - which the National Institute of Mental Health proved I didn’t (Yergulan-Todd, 2001). Whatever the reason, I still lived 20 years after junior high without knowing what I had done “wrong”! This episode perhaps explains why I am so passionate about teaching teens “what I wish I knew” about the entire Circle of Life.

Truth is what works.” – William James

But let's look at the even bigger truth here. We can agree that the “right” way to pitch in practice is without question the “wrong” way to pitch in a game. But how can the right way sometimes be the wrong way? I’m glad you asked. When it comes to our methods, “right” and “wrong” are often relative to the time and place of the event. Now don’t get too excited because I referred to right and wrong as “relative,” as if I said something heretical. We all have our trigger words but I'm going to ask that you keep from jumping to old conclusions until you've read all the way to the end. Just mentioning the philosopher Nietzsche, for example, in my weekly class of homeless men makes many of this overwhelmingly Christian group tense up - and start to hate me - as if any philosopher's rant was more powerful than God. And while were on the subject of "revaluing values", I’m not the only one who recommends a more balanced education than one from a single category. In fact, some of the most famous proponents of righteousness believe that learning what both sides know is the best form of education:

“Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” Jesus, Matthew 10:16b

Interestingly, while many great teachers throughout mythology, religion, and history teach a similar lesson, educational programs today are often only one-sided. Knowing just half of any story puts us at a distinct disadvantage, and not knowing when and where to employ a particular strategy is often the difference between those who get promoted in life... and those who get replaced. Is it any wonder why so many good people - whose only education came from “sheep” school - get…well… fleeced? Let's also keep in mind that when dealing with right and wrong, I am talking about methods and approaches, not ethics and moralilty. I just can't find in any literature where being a "lamb to the slaughter" is anyone's "calling."

“If a heroes are those who risk their own lives to save others, then villains are those who risk others to save themselves.” – Tiger Todd

If we truly expect to produce teens that succeed, while simultaneously protecting them from the villains of this world, we should engage and empower both sides and all the parts of their brains (front and back), as well as both parts of their inner beings, by learning from both “sheep school” and “serpent school.” At least consider combining “social services school” with “business school.” Imagine how much more effective our future educators and social workers would be at producing responsible citizens from their students and client if in addition to using their current strengths, they were also masters of organizational behavior, entrepreneurship, and business law. They could rule the world!

Do what I say, not what I do.

"We have seen the end of an either/or world. Conventional business models are built on choices between mutually exclusive options... For the foreseeable future, you must think 'and', not 'or'." - Peter Sheahan (2007), Flip

I don’t know about you, but I like being right. Not just for the sake of being right, mind you, but so that I can have confidence in my actions. Nothing is more deflating to our confidence than when we are "iffy" about our “right-ness.” It especially sucks when we know what we are doing is just plain wrong. Taking from the quote by William James, we can know that what we are doing is wrong by the fact that it’s not working. From these tennis and softball examples, however, we can see how the lives of our teenagers can suffer - sometimes for decades - because we don't teach them both sides, nor how to connect their approach with their desired result. If a tennis approach brings the desired result, only then can it be deemed the right approach. My lack of awareness of this truth stunted my growth and development for 20 years. Rather than see my future as in the control of my hands, my hands were tied to fixed definitions of right and wrong that were made obsolete by an ever-changing and very diverse world. Instead of investing my energy in mastery, I was wearing  myself out defending ideals that I could not prove nor support.

The Dilemma of Taking Sides

The master communicator, Joseph Campbell, once shared a story about the dangers of "right and wrong" thinking. As the story goes, a Monk in 1980’s Southern California, while flanked by his “constellation of beauties,” began collecting hundreds of minnows from bait shops along the Monterey peninsula to release into the Pacific Ocean. This pious act appeared to be going well until local pelicans saw the flickering feast of fish, like a disco ball advertising an all-you-can-eat buffet, and swooped in for the free-or-reduced lunch. The ensuing chaotic scene continued as the horrified priest and his faithful supporters used every item of their clothing to beat the pelicans away. Still, one unanswered question remained: is it “right” to save minnows, but somehow “wrong” to feed pelicans? Joseph Campbell states that the real error made that day was in not understanding that what is “good” for pelicans is “bad” for fish. The priest erred by having taken sides (Osbon, 2001).

There is a final aspect to this lesson for wise heroes and heroines. Moving “right” and “wrong” from the realm of outdated actions or beliefs and into the realm of time and place or motive and intent, will not only help our teens develop their own on-board judgment and reasoning skills, but it will also help develop their inner hero. Maybe that’s what “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” really means. This is the very dividing line between heroes and villains; heroes give of - or risk - their lives to save others, while villains risk others' lives to save themselves. So while heroes could use their powers to harm others, they- you - are defined as those people who choose instead to use your powers for betterment of humankind.

"All sciences are now under the obligation to prepare the ground for the future task of the philosopher, which is to solve the problem of value, to determine the true hierarchy of values." - Friedrich Nietzsche

With our youth today, there is an essential need to share both sides of education. Not only can our teens today “handle the truth” that the right way in one situation might not be the right way in another, they will respect us more for being honest with them. By teaching teens how to reason rather than simply memorize facts or the dogma of right and wrong, they may also be able to avoid having their childhood experiences gestate into unresolved internal conflicts that war against the soul for decades.

But wait, there’s more...

“Will he finish what he begins?” Yoda

I have yet another risidual effect from the lack of awareness from my own teen years. It is one that affected me late into my adult life, and one that may offer another clue as to why more and more young people today are failing to complete what they begin. Returning mentally to that ill-fated softball game, I now remember that the trauma from being yanked for what I thought I was doing right. Soon, I began missing practices until I eventually stopped showing up for softball altogether. I never finished that softball season.

"Will he finish what he begins?" - Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

This inner unresolved conflict did not dissuade me from starting new sports like tennis, soccer, or basketball, but by not finishing softball, I had inadvertently begun the habit of not finishing what I begin. As if some unseen force was stalking me, I couldn’t finish any of the new sports either. Each time I quit, I  continued to reinforce the pattern that was set from just one lesson I didn't understand in softball. Even today, it is a challenge for me to finish anything that I begin, from classes to books to relationships. Sure, I've started countless businesses and projects, and penned a dozen books. But seeing them through to completion takes everything I have in me, and everyone I know around me. Thanks to all of you who continue to help me finish things. Enablers:)

Brain research from Cornell University, first published by the National Institute of Mental Health in 2002, confirms the “flight” reaction from this inner conflict between right and wrong so prevalent among teens today. According to Dr. Deborah Yergulan-Todd and Dr. Jay Geidd, the undeveloped frontal lobe and nearly non-existent prefrontal cortex of the teen brain, route these conflicts directly to the amygdala(s). This "do not pass go - do not use reason, good judgment, or rational thinking" influences teens to either fight to get their way, or take flight if they feel powerless. As a teen, my lack of understanding triggered the flight response. I'm a lover, not a fighter. Not only did I run instead of learn the cause of my inner conflicts, I foolishly nurtured the habit of not finishing.

We Can Do Better

If you notice any of the teens in your life avoiding certain activities or showing difficulty in finishing what they begin, help them to interrupt this pattern now. Help them to understand that the right way in one circumstance isn't necessarily the right way in another, and that it's O.K. It's O.K to play tennis two different ways, like working on extended "rallies" with friends, and hitting winners in competition. Please, for the love of our young people, don't make the same error that the adults did in my life by telling them that there is only one right way and that way must be used for everything. Keep in mind, the adults in my generation also told me about the "Three R's." It took my a long time to discover that only the word "Reading" begins with the letter "R"! 

"Right" is relative, from practice to games, and from reading for enjoyment to reading to defend the innocent. Sometimes doing the right thing in a relationship means being the mature one and taking the blame for those things you didn't even do.

Help your teens increase awareness and rational thinking by encouraging them to list many possible choices to their behavior, including the potential consequences. And for the adults, don't forget that our goal with teens is not to be "right" or convince them of our way. Rather, our goal is to help the young people in our care change into responsible, self-sufficient adults who will go the distance in what they begin. What will the teens in your life need to hear from you to help them get there? -TT

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