We Do We

By Ginger M. Sullivan, MA, LPC, CGP, FAGPA Individual and Group Psychotherapy

You Doing You

As a permission granting statement, one that lets go and grants freedom to the other, I like it. However, I wonder if, as a society, we’ve swung too far. It seems that in the last half a century, we have focused primarily on a growing individualism. Yet, we have become lonelier, internally empty and emotionally undernourished. We exist like separate islands in an immense ocean. Ones without bridges, or even boats, to pop over for a spontaneous afternoon fish fry. Each to their own. You doing you.

Are we ignoring, and worse still, contributing, to an obvious yet unnamed public health crisis?

Terrifying, really.

As a culture, we’ve learned to find our voice. Express our opinions. Beat to our own drum. Carve a separate path. Order Amazon and a week’s worth of groceries while lounging in our pajamas, without ever having to leave the walls making our home. We know how to keep our selves busy and distracted and alone – just take a look around at all the faces staring down at their phones. We have “friends” without ever meeting eyes or touching bodies. We feel shame if forced to admit we are hurting and in need of someone other than our earned and celebrated hyper independence.

Yes, personal fulfillment prevails and has superseded the value of relationship as our societal bellwether. Our highest state – that of satisfying connection – has been steamrolled. But, the cost of our individualized existence is skyrocketing.

Overdose is the number one killer of the under 50 crowd. Suicide tops 47,000 individuals per year. Marriage emphasizes personal fulfillment (am I getting my needs met?) over the design-intent of partnership and teamwork. Political divide, which dehumanizes difference as “Other,” is worsening. The ensuing intense feelings of fear and hatred are resulting in chaos, greater division and deadly violence.

Interconnection, Our Natural Birthright

We are in trouble and must turn the pendulum back to include the prize of interconnection, our natural birthright.

Most folks are familiar with studies done with lab rats, whereby when placed alone in a small cage with a lever they could press to get morphine and other drugs, the rodents would continuously self-administer the drug until they stopped eating and died. The theoretical conclusion became the brain science underlying addiction. Drugs are powerful over takers. Even rats get high until they die.

We Need Human “Rat Park” Playgrounds

However, Bruce Alexander and his colleagues at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver were skeptical of the study’s deduction. Knowing that rats are social creatures, they designed their own experiment. Called the “Rat Park,” they put together a playground fit for a large family of rats. Shavings, tin cans, running wheels and the like gave the animals a place to romp around as a group. When given access to the drug lever, they tried it but did not become addicted. They preferred to play amongst themselves.

Sounds like we need human “Rat Parks.” Places where we are reminded of the nutrition and fulfillment of in-person human contact. Live experiences where we can re-learn that togetherness has the capacity to compete with death-tempting behaviors and be victorious.

I recently watched “Dumplin’,” a coming-of-age film on Netflix. It tells the tale of an overweight high school girl who is the daughter of a former Miss Teenage Beauty Pageant Queen. The daughter, Will, struggles with her own – as well as her mother’s – body-shaming.

In a particular poignant scene, Will, gets into a fight with her thin and attractive best friend, Ellen. Ellen ruins the teen group’s rebellious plan by following adult instruction. This uncharacteristic move surprises Will and she takes it personally.

“You just did that because you are ashamed of me!” yells Will across the gym floor.

As Ellen stomps off, she retorts, “For the record, I have never seen you as fat.”

We Doing We

We need more Ellens in this world. People that reach beyond themselves to look and see the full dignity and value of the Other. Because, life is less without it. It’s when we soften our walls, not build higher ones, that the rich offering of human-to-human connection becomes possible. Less you-do-you and more we-do-we.

Sadly, our culture is bleeding out psychologically. We need each other more than ever. The external world of science, technology and electronics is exponentially outpacing that of our interior lives, the stuff of feeling, meaning and attachment. Soon, we will have a room full of toys and no joie de vie with a pack of playmates with whom to enjoy them.

Terrifying, really. How far we have gone in the wrong direction.

Relationship, a Necessity For the Constitution of a Healthy Society

Fortunately, the heart will not be ignored. She will continue to desperately call our attention, until we realize that relationship, that tie that binds, is not only a delightful beacon, but a necessity for the constitution of a healthy society.

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Enough Love in an Age of Hate

By Ginger M. Sullivan, MA, LPC, CGP, FAGPA Individual and Group Psychotherapy www.gingersullivan.org

It’s been a hard week in America. I wish I could say surreal, but sadly, we are adapting to a new normal. Threats, bombs, killings, hate. And, there is no sign that it will stop anytime soon.

We gasp. We send our thoughts and prayers – whatever that means. Yet, we are buried under a perpetual tsunami of animus. Powerless to make a difference in the current tide of our culture. Thoughts and prayers seem to be the limit of imaginable effective change.

But, it’s not working, folks. It is not enough.

“Gun control!” scream the Blues.

“Mental health!” yell the Reds in retort.

“Violence to end violence!” says our current President.

Love in the form of permission, say I.

Because, isn’t our country immense enough to hold all forms of humanity? Wasn’t our country founded on freedom of expression and desire for independence? Are our hearts so small and restricted that we can love only certain colors, sexualities, genders and religions? Can’t our emotional worlds go beyond fear to curiosity, understanding, tolerance and dare I say, celebration?

This is my world. On Friday, in rainy DC traffic, I drove to one airport to pick-up my daughter’s best friend from camp (who happens to be French) so that the girls can have a weekend of teenage delight. I dropped them home to giggles and hot pizza. I then headed north, still in the deluge, to Washington’s other airport to pick-up my African family who are residing in our home for a month. My other “adopted” daughter, with her elderly mother and baby daughter in tow, had been to Disneyland for the week. They hugged me bigly as I welcomed them back home. A full house. The United Nations. All sleeping under my roof. Eight diverse humans, two dogs and one snake. It is my normal.

Big Enough

As a group psychotherapist, I offer patients a second-chance family. Ones that give the message of “come as you are.” There is no wrong way to be. You bring what you got, because you got it for a reason. It may not be working for you anymore, but we start where we are. Because, the group – our family – is big enough. Our hearts are open enough. There is room for all. With permission and openness, expansion is now possible. Because, tolerance and compassion provide the calm necessary for growth.

What does it cost you to love more?

Last I checked, love is not a limited resource. I don’t have to agree with you. I can even disagree with you. But, I can make room for allowance and maybe on a good day, for understanding. Because, our country is big enough. The heart can stretch wide enough. Sharing with you does not take away from me because I have more than I need. And love is our super power.

We stop hate when we stop blaming others and take a harsh look at ourselves.


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Technology’s Assault On Relational Intimacy

By Ginger M. Sullivan, MA, LPC, CGP, FAGPA Individual and Group Psychotherapy

More Machine, Less Human

It had been too long. A sit-down with my friend was long overdue. We picked the date and the time and of course, the usual place–a Starbucks somewhere between his office and mine.

On entering the familiar coffee shop, my heart dropped. I realized that like the Starbucks closer to home, this location was also a victim of the “Starbucks Remodeling Venture” … more machine, less human. Gone were the cushy chairs, the tight seating arrangements that facilitated conversation, and the atmospheric incentives to sit in a coffee shop and actually relax and reflect upon one’s own thoughts or those of the person sitting across from you.

Instead, products being sold were displayed, well-directed paths indicated where I should queue and rows of tables available were those best suited for what has become the modern-day conversational partner – the laptop.

I asked my friend if he had found a place to sit. He shook his head in affirmation while grimacing with frustration. The only side-by-side seats unoccupied were two hard wooden chairs at what looked like a long table for studying in a college library. All the two-top tables were occupied by single people facing a screen. So, while my friend and I shared a long overdue moment of conversation squeezed shoulder to shoulder at a table also occupied by eight strangers, rows of chairs sat eerily empty and available opposite screen-watchers. This made eavesdropping very effortless and unchallenging.

The Death of Human Interaction

What has our world turned into? Even though we have more technology than ever to help us communicate, stay in touch and cross global barriers in a flash, we are witnessing the death of human connection. Face-to-face real time contact is becoming as extinct as the dinosaurs. And while this transformation in the way we live and relate with each other is concretely displayed at a place like Starbucks, I also experience and hear it daily in my psychotherapy office.

We text, sext, email, blog, tele-work in our pajamas, shop online and Facebook our many “friends” behind the safe confines of our homes with our eyes locked on a screen. Here, we are free to present the best versions of ourselves (or made-up ones) with no mess or spontaneity. But, when it comes to actual emotional intimacy, we are even lonelier and more clueless than ever.

I certainly don’t blame Starbucks for modernizing their décor. Or even Facebook, for that matter. They are businesses adapting their environment to fit technological demand.

The Realities of Intimacy and Affection

Nevertheless, one thing I am clear about – we can do away with the conversational chairs at Starbucks but good luck ridding the human heart of its need for genuine contact. Emotional connection is to the heart as oxygen is to the lungs. The creation of intimacy requires first, that I sit with my own thoughts and feelings as a learned curiosity. Such curiosity takes an investment of time and effort to construct the space for the profundities of our inner life to surface. And then as we risk exposing our cores to another and they with us, we each expand in the knowing, tolerating and appreciating of ours and their innermost worlds. True affection then takes root and grows … giving us the opportunity to know the fullness of the human experience.

Yet, more than ever before, human beings have to be taught how to be intimate with one another. Creating and sustaining true, authentic, verbal and emotional connection is a learned skill. I see this deficit every day in my office. After partners stop the behaviors that have caused the distance between them, they both look at each other and at me, and say with lost eyes, “now what?” “Is this it?” “Are we done?” I, thus, point the way toward facing the crucial task of learning how to build a genuine, messy, loving, hating and cherishing relationship with the human being sitting on the other side of my green couch.

Usually, I get stares as though I am speaking a foreign language. I am beginning to think I really am. With the predominance of social media as our primary form of human contact, we are fostering an epidemic of relationally challenged people. We are becoming so satiated with processed cookies at four o’clock that we can comfortably skip preparing, inviting and dining over real dinner with homemade food. The overabundance of manufactured contact at our fingertips 24/7 allows us to ignore both our hunger for live human touch and the blunt realization that most of us are lousy at it.

The Scholarly Bitter Truth

Such starkness leads me to appreciate my training in psychoanalysis. My scholarly teachers, poets of pontification, deepened my experience of the world. For our purposes, I will share two of their many valued ideas.

  •    Living Unconsciousness

First, Freud was right. The unconscious is alive and well. In other words, there are parts of who we are that exist in our blind spot. The evolution of a healthy human being towards his/her potential requires that he/she seeks clarity and light around the darkened rooms within. I just need to lay on the couch and say what comes to mind, what I am thinking and feeling, out loud at the moment.

  •    The Blurry Line between   Unconsciousness and Intimacy

Second, I need to lay on that couch multiple times per week to run out of things to say. Yup! You read that correctly. I can easily fill the space of 50 minutes with a report of all life’s happenings since last week. And by the time I am done catching up my analyst, the time buzzer has expired. See you next week when we will do the same thing over again. But in psychoanalysis, I must come back tomorrow or the next day. What the hell do I talk about now? Not much has occurred since the last time I was here. So, we sit in silence. And often we sit a long time. Space has been opened and thus far, nothing is rushing in to fill it. I can’t talk about the analyst’s personal life in that this is not a social setting. And God forbid, I pick up my phone. So, I am forced to sit with myself–all the good, the bad and the ugly. And eventually, because there is this creation of space, all the rich, concealed goodies deep inside me begin to surface. We drop, or fall, into a level of intimacy where the depth of my unconscious has the luxury to make an appearance. And then we get real meat, when all the deep-seated substance eventually becomes raw material for the progression of a human towards essence and vitality.

The Time-Inefficient Fight for Intimacy

Outside of the analyst’s consulting room, there is a parallel process in real life: If I do not fight for intimacy or intentionally and consciously create the time and the space for buried thoughts and feelings to crop up, then I am settling for a life of superficiality and shallow connections. I will become a victim to life’s overabundance of distractions which will crowd my capacity to dig deeper into the shiny gold lying extensively in you and in me. Couples tell me often that they don’t have the time to do what I am suggesting in order to build and sustain real intimacy. I tell them to make the time. Relationships are an investment and they are not time-efficient. Without carving out time to reveal one’s inner thoughts and feelings to one another, we are resigning ourselves to a life of boring logistics and parallel living. Thus, it’s a wonder that Facebook becomes the go-to for empty calories and watching television has replaced the dinner table.

Passing up on the Dinner Cookies

On that cold February morning, I could have easily taken my laptop into Starbucks and engrossed myself in electronic friendship. But instead, I sat across from my dear friend in an engagement of true relationship. And he became the human inspiration that got my emotional and intellectual juices flowing.

Cookies for dinner? I’ll pass, thank you. I would rather tolerate my temporary hunger in hopes that I will feast on a gourmet meal. For, intimacy is worth the fight, even when there is no longer a cushy chair to be had.

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Take Your Relationship Deeper

Ginger M. Sullivan, MA, LPC, CGP, FAGPA

Individual and Group Psychotherapy

As a child, I knew in my gut that there had to be more to relationship than the superficial. I was born with an ache for the authentic. Enough of the pretend pretty, the looking-good-on-the-outside stuff. Can someone please talk about what is really going on under the surface? I was dying a slow emotional death and finding more sustenance became mandatory. So, I started to search for depth and honesty, a journey of knowing and being known. To the heart, I descended.

I owe the beginning stages of this journey to my good friend from graduate school. The roommate lottery stuck me with Helen – the disciplined woman that went to bed at 9 p.m. and got up at 5 a.m. I went to bed at midnight and got up at 8 a.m. That left me three hours of homelessness. The ugly green couch in the student lounge became my nightly place to plop. The concerned RA took note and small talk ensued. It began with – why you are always sitting there every night at 9 p.m.? Initially, it was gossip about poor Helen. Then it became about my new friend’s dilemma – should she date the nice, boring guy or the fun, crazy one? And then it became about the recent death of my father and why I had moved back to Chicago. And so on. Our talk deepened. During the wee hours, we began to share organically. She revealed her story and I disclosed mine. Fast forward ten months and not only did we become close friends, but she had patiently taught me a thing or two about loosening my grip, melting my walls and learning through experience how to become emotionally intimate with another human being through the back and forth trading of words laced with feeling.

In this article, I offer a description of the layers of verbal and emotional communication.

Like the peeling of an onion, we go from the superficial to the profound, from outer to inner.

Let’s begin the plunge:

Layer 1:  Cocktail Party Conversation

“Hi! How are you?” “Good. And you?” “Good.” “Great. Good to see you.” “You too. Have a great day!” And on we travel through our day. No personal information is revealed. No impact has been made on either party. We have only engaged in a civil, social discourse. But, before we poo-poo its importance, it is the start to human contact. We have put words in the empty space which before divided us. We have acknowledged the other and initiated verbal engagement. After all, relationships must begin with “hello.” Furthermore, we may even feel some vibe which makes us curious and hungry for more. The fun has begun.

Layer 2:  The Outside World

Once we move past the initial hello, we have begun some kind of relationship. Our big toe goes into the water as a potential bond begins to form. Conversation at this level entails subjects outside of us, such as the weather, gossip, sports, politics or current events. Like the first layer, we are still existing primarily in our comfort zone; however, there is a little more personal information revealed. The other party gets some sense of what interests us and what our passions are. We find things we have in common, and if we are paying attention, we might pick up on an energy that is connective. One that evokes our desire to get to know someone at an even deeper level.

Layer 3:  Thoughts, Values and Opinions

At this level of contact, we are sharing with more ownership. We are letting someone in on the foundational principles that define our life’s frame whether they be political, religious or cultural. Such openness means that we have moved into potentially more treacherous waters in that judgment and rejection are now possibilities. Someone might not tolerate our opinions or the values that feel essential to who we are. Someone might discount us or shame us or even, ridicule us. In other words, hurt is now a real prospect. As I get closer to the prize of intimacy, the risk goes up exponentially. Both in terms of the pain I might experience but also the reality that the relationship we are starting to invest in might not survive the additional heat. We go deeper …

Layer 4:  Facts About Me

At this level of relating, we begin to tell our story. We share the significant narratives that have come to identify who we are. Often the telling and re-telling is done from a cognitive, head-space. It is as if I am reporting a series of events outside of me. Yes, you are getting to know the facts about my life which are revealing and relating but not as connective as …

Layer 5:  Feelings About Me

Now ask me how I feel about all those central stories of my life and we got a game-changer. The emotional temperature in the person talking and in the dialogue between the party’s plummets to an emotional and relational intensity. We now have a real possibility for presence, engagement and connection. We have crossed the grand chasm from head to the sacred space of the heart. It is in this place that relationships take root and bloom. That people go from strangers to intimate friends. But sadly, we often avoid this opportunity for such a gift because we fear the risk – the risk of showing you all my best wares – the insides of who I am – and your rejecting or discarding them. Thus, in such resistance, we often miss out on entering the candy shop of life. And just as the image portrays, this is where all the good stuff is. The magical content of poets and musicians, philosophers and artists.

If we are willing to open ourselves up and share what is most raw and real, we likely draw compassion, understanding, care and warmth. We humanize ourselves which attracts other people to us – for what is most personal is also most universal. Our fears, pains, longings and aches are alike. You just couldn’t realize this when I was hiding so well.

Layer 6:  Feelings About You

At the core of human contact, the most intimate I can be with another person, is to tell him/her how I feel about them. The focus shifts from being about me, towards me and in me, to being about how I feel toward you. We stand naked, full-frontal, gazing at the eyes, heart and soul of the person across from us. Talk about risk at its height! Not only might the other not share the same feelings but he/she might not receive the feelings I have to offer. The cards are stacked to either stand tall or fall flat – something I won’t know or experience until I open my mouth and express my feelings toward the other person with my words.

So, how can this new knowledge of progressive communication assist us in our day-to-day lives? 

1. Respect yourself

You are precious. Gold. A trophy. A diva. A dame. A star.

If you really believed that, then you would learn not to reveal your inner life to just anyone. Why? Because they don’t deserve it. They don’t deserve you. You gotta make them earn it. In other words, don’t go diving into the deep end of any available swimming pool. Pace yourself. Because if you jump in and you get hurt from the undetected concrete bottom or the chilly waters or the man-eating shark that is lurking in wait, then you are the fool. You gotta test the water first. So, just put in one toe. How does that feel? Does the person seem interested, available, engaged, willing to share back? If so, stick in an ankle. See how that feels. At any point and time, if you sense danger or limitation, back it on out and take a sunbath until you muster the courage to try again – maybe with someone entirely new. In other words, respect yourself enough to reveal yourself slowly over time … not too quickly and not too slowly … and at each point, assess the other person’s capacity to receive you and reciprocate. Sometimes, you hold hands and walk together into deep waters. And sometimes, one person coaxes the other to come on in, the water is fine. And sometimes, you hit his/her cap and there is no going any further. You must stop there. Johnny might be a great bowling partner or business associate, but that is as much as there is ever going to be.

2. Respect others

No judgment, just disappointment. People bring to the table what they got for now. Accept it.

And, if you are in the mood to be generous and you sense an opening for more, be patient. Revealing one’s inner self is like a stack of cafeteria trays. You can’t get to tray #12 until you have gone through one to eleven. Sometimes, if a safe space is provided over time, people can tolerate swimming in more daring waters. That is what my graduate school friend gave to me and I am ever grateful to her for that. But she didn’t have to. She could have given up at my one-word answers and walled-off heart. And, don’t forget point #1 above – respect yourself. If you find yourself working harder on someone else’s life than they are on their own, it is time to back out. Knocking your head against a wall to try and get water from an empty well – not something I suggest. There are those that can join you in the less superficial waters. You must find them.

3. Tolerate the range

There is nothing wrong with any of the above-mentioned layers of emotional communication.

There is a time and a place for all the layers, no matter how shallow.

We need to learn how to both work a crowd at a party and how to let someone into our innermost world. Having the flexibility to stomach the range is a sign of emotional maturity. So, lighten up. Appreciate the fact that you can go as deep as there is and then back out with a good belly laugh at the silliest of things. Consider yourself one of the lucky ones who can enjoy it all.

4. Shoot for five

Heartfelt intimacy requires much time, effort and conscious intentionality. Therefore, reality precludes you from having more than a few at any given time.

The number of your Facebook friends withstanding, if you have five close, intimate relationships, you are the exception.

If you have less than five, make it a priority. Pinpoint a relationship that has potential and begin to take more risks. Stretch yourself past your comfort zone and go deeper.

So, there you have it, my friends. I’m ready for a swim. You coming in?

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Hope’s Double Edge

Ginger M. Sullivan, MA, LPC, CGP, FAGPA
Individual and Group Psychotherapy

What’s there not to love about hope?

It’s one of those feel-good concepts. Dreaming about a bright light at the end of the tunnel.

In fact, we welcome hope so that we ritualize her into the fabric of our lives. We get to kiss a tired, worn day good-bye and rise to the dawn of an unchartered day … seven days a week, 365 a year. We toot horns on New Year’s Eve and blow candles out every birthday in great anticipation for all the good things we imagine ahead. We birth babies who then carry all our fantasies into their yet-to-be-lived lives. Advertisements bombard us with expectation that this product, this medicine or this opportunity will make us a better, happier, richer or healthier person. And when life kicks us in the teeth, it is often desire for that better day tomorrow that keeps us keeping on.

No question, hope is essential for the survival of the human spirit. Hope is the necessary ingredient for an optimistic future. Without it, we can move to that place of resigned despair that can accompany the darkness of depression and self-destruction. But out of context, hope can be misleading and even harmful. It can prevent us from living life on life’s terms in a present and full manner. Allow me to expound:

Hope without realistic evidence is denial.

Sometimes, the marriage cannot be saved. Sometimes, cancer wins. Sometimes, character flaws carry a poor prognosis. Hanging on to false hope grounds us in denial and stalls the process of accepting reality on reality’s terms. Learning when to keep holding on tightly with both hands clenched and when to pry back our fingers and finally let go … that is one dance we must stumble through in life. And sadly, it does not come with an instruction manual. Hope without action is passivity. It is one thing to dream but it is quite
another to put one’s feet to the fire and make it happen. Hope is not an excuse to do nothing – to sit and to wait as if we have front row tickets to a magic show. But rather, true hope demands hard work, goal-setting and perseverance through fear, risk, criticism and failure. Hope alone can prevent necessary action when it needs to be the fire that fuels it.

Hope, without an honest evaluation of our limitations, is grandiosity.

Let’s face it … I am never going to win an Olympic medal. Never gonna get him to love me again. Never gonna have another baby. Never gonna erase the mistakes of my past. There are some things, many things, that are not within my reach. I can try with all my stubborn will, but it is futile. I have only wasted my time, breath and energy hoping for the impossible rather than working toward the realistic. Without an honest, and perhaps harsh assessment of my limits, I cannot embrace the me that I am now. Humility means facing my truth and recognizing what I can and what I cannot do. Accepting my limits gives me the freedom to flow with the current of life rather than spending useless energy trying to fight against it.

Contrarily, I wonder if hope is most hopeful when it is paired with surrender. I think St. Francis got this idea. His famous serenity prayer speaks to this exact paradox “… to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.”

May compassion be your companion as life keeps you engaged in the struggle of knowing when either to hold on to hope for dear life or to find hope in the hopelessness. Because, sometimes the path to peace is letting go.

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Today’s Youth: Super Connected yet Completely Disconnected

Avi Muschel, PsyD

Yeshiva University Counseling Center, NYC                                   DrMuschel@gmail.com

Let’s start with a game: Which of the following statements about today’s youth (people born after 1995) is false?

• Today’s teenagers and young adults are starting to have sex at younger ages than teenagers and young adults of previous generations.

• Today’s teenagers and young adults engage with more sexual partners than members of previous generations did.

• Most of today’s teenagers and young adults do not want to be in emotionally connected relationships.

Think of your answer (even say it out loud to avoid cheating), and hold onto it for a moment.

Considering that I spend most of my waking hours at a college counseling center, with students born in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a book written exclusively about this age group seemed like a must-read. And so I was excited to come across “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood” by San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge. Twenge’s volume is fairly enlightening not only in helping understand the issues unique to this post-Millennial generation she refers to as “iGen’ers,” but in providing context for these issues. Twenge is careful to highlight that the unique characteristics of this generation are neither inherently positive nor negative; rather, they have positive and negative features.

As a general theme, she consistently finds tremendous importance given to two key components in the lives of many iGen’ers: safety and individualism. For our purposes, we will only explore and expound upon these two features as they relate to my personal area of expertise, relationships.

Twenge begins her chapter about relationships by dismissing all three of the statements I listed at the beginning of this essay as myths. As it turns out, today’s youths are less sexually active than their parents or grandparents were at their age. Similarly, although the media typically highlights the frequency and widespread nature of the casual “hookup culture,” not only is the hooking up not as pervasive as is often reported, but more importantly, despite the culture, most teens and young adults still desperately seek emotional connection. So why can’t they find it?

Individuality vs Relationships

The importance of individualism is a prominent part of growing up today, for better and for worse. Politically, for example, this emphasis on individual autonomy has manifested through unprecedented activism in support of tolerance toward any and every kind of minority in America and across the world. One clear downside of this individuality, which directly impacts relationships, is the resulting belief that relationships negatively impact one’s individuality. More and more iGen’ers report avoiding relationships out of the fear that it will ruin their ability to grow individually. While many members of the previous generation either ignored their own individuality for the sake of a relationship, or considered their relationships as a part of their identity, kids growing up today consider relationships a “distraction,” which “hold you back from your true potential.”

At the counseling center, I have heard many students describe their lack of time for relationships. Students have insisted to me that they need to “work on themselves” or “find themselves” first before they are ready for a relationship. Jack, a 23-year-old college student, told me that he “hit it off” with a girl he met at a recent event, but decided not to pursue the relationship in order to take time away from relationships and figure out his own life path first.

What I’m also seeing concurrently is the feeling of guilt or confusion students experience over their feeling bad about a breakup. Rachel, a 25-year-old graduate student, had broken up with her boyfriend of four years, and was struggling to move on, often catching glimpses of his Facebook page to see pictures of his newest girlfriend. “I consider myself a feminist and it doesn’t make sense that I need a man to be happy, but then why do I care about him so much?” she asked me. “I don’t know. Maybe because you’re a person, and you went out with him for years and you really loved each other,” was my empathic reply, a not-so-subtle attempt to help her appreciate her humanness in seeking, and missing, a romantic relationship.

She, like many others her age, struggle to appreciate that it is appropriate in life, even as a feminist, to rely on others for emotional support. Several decades ago, John Bowlby made famous what we now all intuitively believe: a child needs love and emotional support, what he called “attachment,” to thrive in life. Sue Johnson, the world-renowned marriage therapist and developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy, simply extended Bowlby’s discoveries about children and applied them to adults. As it turns out, people don’t grow out of their innate need for others. iGen’ers’ desire for individual autonomy is praiseworthy; their belief that emotional relationships hijack this autonomy is perilous.

Pursuit of Safety

The second prominent feature of today’s youth is their emphasis on safety. Aside from physical safety, which has fortunately led to reduced rates of teen pregnancies and STDs, iGen’ers also fear emotional pain, an unfortunate but natural byproduct of life and development. This fear is understandable–no one wants to experience pain–however, like their attempts at achieving individuality, iGen’ers pursuit of safety is not without cost.

Stress Therapy

The easiest way to understand the fallacy in avoiding emotional pain is through a basic comparison to physical pain. Nobody wants to have the flu, but to increase the likelihood of avoiding the actual flu, most healthy people receive an injection of a small amount of the flu in a vaccine, to help protect the body against stronger versions of the flu in the future. This idea is as true in mental health as it is in physical health. In fact, certain psychology techniques, such as stress inoculation therapy and attitude inoculation, demonstrate the notion that exposing a person to small doses of something negative can be helpful in the long-term. The same is true with emotional pain. Experiencing rejection or other frustrations in emotional relationships can feel devastating, but completely avoiding those feelings hurts a person even more in the long-term. Pain is inevitable, but experiencing some pain throughout life helps develop the very “immune system” that helps cure the pain a person will continually face.

This, too, is a challenge that presents all too often at our counseling center. One student I worked with for a long time, Nancy, told me about how she would always have “emergency exits” in her relationships to protect herself from any form of rejection. If a boy she dated would show any sign of not being interested in her, even for a minute, she would immediately “escape” the relationship and avoid feeling rejected. As she explained so elegantly, before he can dump her, she would dump him.

Another student, Brian, related to me that relationships are challenging because of the inherent requirement to make himself vulnerable. He realized that he even struggled to make eye contact with the girls he dated, as well as with me, his therapist, lest he become too vulnerable and allow someone to see into his eyes and into his soul.

As Twenge explains, iGen’ers believe ‘tis better to never have loved at all, than to have loved and lost. Like with their pursuit of individuality, iGen’ers understandably seek to avoid pain, and often make good choices as a result, but their firm insistence on avoidance of any pain paradoxically hurts them more than it helps.

Contrary to the way they are portrayed in popular television shows, kids, teens, and young adults of the current generation are not stupid, lazy, or bad. They are, like every generation, endowed with their own unique strengths and weaknesses that are a product of parenting styles and the culture around them. The best way to help them thrive in life is to understand their unique traits, namely their focus on individuality and safety, and help foster positive growth as a result.

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The Bare Facts

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky                                                 The spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, Teaneck, New Jersey, and Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Coalition for Jewish Values.                Rabbi@bnaiyeshurun.org

Miss America

The Miss America pageant recently announced that it will no longer feature the participants in swimsuits or evening gowns, heretofore staples of the event, proudly proclaiming that their contestants will no longer be judged on their physical beauty. Instead, the pageant will consist of a competition of goals, achievements and passions, sort of a Gong Show with better talent.

That’s fine with me. I have never watched a pageant and am totally unfamiliar with the winners, losers and various attributes that decide their fates. I have heard comedians joke for generations about the lame questions the finalists had to answer, a query that usually requested their formula for world peace or an end to global hunger – and in 60 seconds or less. I do have a hunch that ratings for the event will plummet and probably kill the entire enterprise in a short period of time but I do not know how this sartorial modesty will play in the international pageant, whatever it is called, where such reticence probably violates the rules and very purpose of the competition.

On one hand, looks do matter and people are often judged based on appearance. The Elephant Man may have cast a sympathetic figure but you don’t see him reading the evening news on television.

But on the other hand, Jewish values certainly uphold the notion of human dignity and protest against the objectification of women implicit in these contests. As a rabbi, I can certainly appreciate the motives and sentiments of the pageant organizers, especially in the light of the recent revelations of male malfeasance born of a sense of entitlement fed by a culture of promiscuity.

Why Stop at the Miss America Pageant?

The entertainment industry is saturated with the objectification of the female body in a way that is designed to appeal to the most prurient instincts of man. Movies and television shows (especially cable) are saturated with nudity that – if we are honest with ourselves – is completely gratuitous, wholly unnecessary to the stories, plot lines or message trying to be conveyed and is provided simply because of audience expectation and male gratification. These days, I am told, male nudity is also becoming common on these shows because of, you know, the spirit of egalitarianism sweeping the country.

Somehow, classic romantic movies – think Gone with the Wind or Casablanca – were able to tell their tales while the performers remained fully clothed. Imagine that! Indeed, one can cogently argue that what is suggested or hinted at is more alluring than what is graphically displayed to all, and for all time.

It is interesting that radical feminists have also diverged on this question, with one group arguing that women should not demean themselves in becoming easy objects of male fantasy and another asserting that women have the right to do what they wish with their body, even flaunt it for money and fame.

Judaism is clear and unequivocal in its regard for elementary decency and the modest deportment of both men and women, as well as in its distaste and abhorrence of the culture of exhibitionism that caters to the lascivious predilections of the few. I assume, perhaps in error, that they are the few.

What to do?

Obviously it cannot be banned in a modern society and laws tend to drive these activities underground but not out of sight. There is another possibility, implicit in the new policy of the Miss America pageant.

A Possible Solution

What if every actress just refused to perform in any scene that required her to disrobe, partially or fully? What if every actor did the same? In other words, what if every lad insisted on remaining clad and every lass retaining some class? Imagine if every actor or actress would say to every producer, director or screenwriter in Hollywood that he/she will not appear naked, and so they should not ask for it, expect it or write it into a scene. That would be a different world. No one really believes that the narrative requires it.

Well, you might say, there will always be some actress interested in getting ahead and making a name for herself as one who pushes the limits, unabashed, unafraid, and therefore uncovered. Undoubtedly, there will be some women or men who want to be defined by their bodies, seek glory in their physique and thus will look for opportunities to parade about wearing only a smile. But isn’t that the problem? And aren’t they the problem – and the audience that laps it up?

There is a solution to that dilemma as well: ostracism. Let every other actor or actress refuse to appear alongside the offenders in any movie or show in which the bare skin detracts from the raw dialogue. There is strength in numbers; if most refuse, the minority will eventually go along as well.

If society is genuinely interested in recovering lost virtues and redrawing the boundaries of acceptable conduct between men and women, then to halt the process with Miss America would seem to be futile at best and hypocrisy at worst. Hollywood is an obvious target as a leading cause in America’s cultural decline into debauchery, decadence and despicable behavior – as well as the leading offenders in the male treatment of women. Hollywood can also lead the way to a better and more virtuous society by going cold turkey in its too-frequent depictions of human beings in the altogether.

Then we can get to work on the obsession with profanity.

And what do you think?

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Who’s the GOAT? One Man’s View About the Pursuit of Greatness

Rabbi Josh Blass – Spiritual Advisor – Yeshiva University, Congregational Rabbi – Kehillas Bais Yehudah, Wesley Hills, NY  Blass@yu.edu

With LeBron James’s otherworldly performance through much of this year’s playoffs, the old, somewhat ridiculous, question has re-emerged as to who is the greatest of all time? While the LeBron camp has its share of passionate supporters, the average well informed basketball fan will still align themselves with Michael Jordan.

As for me, while I’m not the crazed call-into-Sports Radio fan, I find myself rooting for LeBron in ways that I never remember doing so for MJ. While Jordan will most probably go down as one of the two or three most dominant athletes of all time, it’s hard for me to feel fondly towards someone who, quite simply, seems like a jerk. Yelling and demeaning teammates, holding lifelong grudges for slights that were often of his own concoction, elevating himself even at the expense of his own children, competitiveness and intensity at all costs, all managed to paint a picture of a somewhat unlikable man. While LeBron certainly has an ego and is often unnecessarily profane for someone who knows that he’s a model for kids and adults alike, he seems by all accounts to be a decent human being who is a good father, cares deeply about the community and seeks to heap praise upon both teammates and opponents.

Greatness Among All

This debate and others like it ignite a question that would seem to have some baring for our lives and for our life decisions. Namely, can one can achieve greatness while still maintaining genuine humility, decency and balance. A quick perusal of the world of sports would seem to bring one to the conclusion that for every Wayne Gretzky, a gentle soul who spent the last days of his career signing hockey sticks for even the most insignificant employee of the NY Rangers, there are a dozen Tiger Woods who in his prime became the greatest, due in no small measure to a nasty demeanor and an almost unhealthy competitiveness. What’s true in sports seems to be undoubtedly true in business, law, the arts, entertainment, academia etc. One might draw the conclusion that reaching the pinnacle of any given profession or enterprise requires a single mindedness, an intensity, an obsessiveness that often stands in conflict with healthiness, balance, spiritual fitness and a robust family and personal life.

Is It Worth It?

Perhaps what’s an open question is whether it’s worth it. Whether it’s worth the effort, work and single mindedness that would allow a person to leave their mark on the world in some public and significant way. I saw an excellent movie called Whiplash a couple years back about a music teacher and his pupil. The relationship was incredibly unhealthy, even abusive, and the teacher played by J.K Simmons was manipulative at best and maniacal at worst. With that said, at the end of the day his student became a world class Jazz drummer. What I found provocative was that when one walked out of the theater it wasn’t clear the position that the movie was taking of whether all of it was worth it or not. Maybe that’s the price that one pays, and the world can only meaningfully exist with accomplishment and creativity even at the expense of other values.

We live in a country in which typically students are coddled and given the easy way out. Parents don’t want to push too hard in fear of alienating their kids or putting too much pressure on them. The mentality in China seems to be just the opposite, and while the suicide rate and stress levels among Asian college students are far higher than that of their American counterparts, it’s no wonder that China has far surpassed the US in regards to education and professional development. Again, is that trade- off worth it? How does a parent or an educational institution manage to firmly and forcefully drive their children or students to success while also developing well rounded and healthy/ happy members of society.

Happiness and Success

As a Rabbi, it strikes me that the ancient Jewish texts are sensitive to this issue and seek to strike a necessary balance. On the one hand, the Bible and Talmud see no value in laziness and strongly critique an inferior work ethic. Pushing oneself to achievement, becoming scholarly, making a difference in the world are all part of a child’s vocabulary from a young age. There is a recognition that happiness comes specifically because of achievement and that the greatest tragedy is allowing one’s G-d given abilities to lie fallow. On the other hand our sages make it clear that accomplishment means nothing if it’s not in the context and framework of gentleness, benevolence, modesty, humility, generosity of spirit, a calm demeanor and a concern for the greater welfare.

It would seem obvious that at the core of this issue is the question of the inner life of any given individual. If a person is spiritually, psychologically and emotionally fit then a desire for success comes from a solid place of healthy self-actualization. Such a person is not running from something, righting old wrongs, defining themselves through other people’s version of success, trying to endlessly meet someone else’s expectations and filling a void that can never ever be artificially filled. On the flip side, if a person’s inner core is not developed then they just run and push and seek to accomplish and claw their way to success only to realize at the end of the journey, that they are standing quite alone and unfulfilled at the top of the pinnacle.

Raising the Bar

As a parent and educator that means high standards, limits and boundaries all communicated in a spirit of love and ultimately acceptance. As a person navigating one’s own life it means constantly investing in the time and the resources to make sure that our inner world is where it needs to be in order to meaningfully enjoy whatever success our efforts render. Hats off to Michael Jordan and his ilk for being the greatest of all time, but for me, and hopefully for healthy people around the world, I’ll look for role models elsewhere.

What do you think?

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