Mind Matters — Babies and Bullies

Here I am thinking about my Mother again. Perhaps it is because now that I have become a grandmother, I am coming to understand how she felt not only as a mother but as a grandmother herself, how she saw a “grander” picture of parenting—the larger, long term view.

So what is my larger, long term view now that I identify with her so much? Perhaps it is the acknowledgement that how we raise our children and model behavior for them has a rippling effect down the generations.

To some readers I probably sound like a broken record. However, some messages need to be said again and again just to override the loud voices of bigotry and bullying that bombard us.

The founder of cognitive behavioral therapy, psychiatrist Aaron Beck wrote Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence in 1999, after he developed his brand of individual therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is noted for its focus on the automatic thoughts that, along with an upsurge of emotion, prompts a behavior in an individual.

In the therapeutic process of examining these automatic thoughts, an individual can learn what leads to certain negative behaviors and begin the process of change. Family systems therapists often talk about learning how to regulate reactivity. Jungians talk about how to recognize entrenched patterns of thinking that lead to unwanted behaviors in order to work through our complexes. Whatever the words, the therapeutic message is similar: that psychological health depends upon awareness of thoughts and feelings so that emotional regulation is possible and behaviors are managed.

Yet, Aaron Beck, in Prisoners of Hate, takes a grander view, beyond the individual to society at large. Indeed family systems theorists, and Jungians too, see the psycho-dynamics of the individual and family play out societally, and globally as well.

We absolutely need to recognize that what we model to our “babies” at the microcosmic scale has a direct connection to what gets enacted at the macrocosmic level. It matters what we say and how we act toward each other. It is not the automatic thought that counts so much as what we do with it. We may not at first be able to help that an ingrained prejudice appears or that a glimmer of an angry feeling starts to stir. However, we can learn to self-soothe, talk ourselves down out of the negative thoughts towards ourselves or the other—the feared “enemy”—and then be witness to our emotions. With practice, over time, we become quicker and quicker at calming our reactivity.

Demagogues—political figures, for example—use the individual’s primal reactivity to their advantage. They foment fear of “other,” of differences, for their own self-aggrandizement and usurpation of power. If we ourselves on an individual level are aware of our own lingering fears and are working towards emotional regulation, we are not hoodwinked by bigots, bullies, and bravado.

We are all works in progress: I know I am. I was reminded recently of my own potential for “judging mind,” when, in a New England store, I saw a family who looked very different—to me. The women and girls were in long dresses, the men had beards. I am used to seeing Amish, who dress similarly, so they are not “other” because they are my neighbors. These people were not that so they were “foreign” to me. I caught myself in my wonderment—curiosity is one thing, but judging or making fun of another’s difference is the emotionally reactive part. I stopped myself before I went galloping off on that pony named Prejudice.

The antidote to prejudice and fear of other can be found in Ysaye Barnwell’s song, Would You Harbor Me?. Anna Crusis, the Philadelphia-based women’s choir of which I am a member will be singing it this spring. Here are the words:

Would you harbor me?
Would I harbor you?
Would you harbor me?
Would I harbor you?
Would you harbor a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew,
a heretic, convict or spy?
Would you harbor a runaway woman, or child,
a poet, a prophet, a king?
Would you harbor an exile, or a refugee,
a person living with AIDS?
Would you harbor a Tubman, a Garrett, a Truth
a fugitive or a slave?
Would you harbor a Haitian, Korean, or Czech,
a lesbian or a gay?
Would you harbor me?
Would I harbor you?
Would you harbor me?
Would I harbor you?

My wish is that we would all sing this song to drown out the loudest bigoted bullies in our midst. Let’s sing for the babies!