JOURNEY TO WHOLENESS - March 2020
A Perilous Balance: Hope or Despair
By Jude LaClaire, Ph.D.
Stories of people who survive trauma with great resilience have always inspired me. One longitudinal landmark study began in 1995 as Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith followed 699 children from before birth into their thirties. These children faced adverse conditions, such as perinatal stress, chronic poverty, and parents who had little education and often suffered from mental illness or addictions.
One-third of the children did very well in their lives and were called the “vulnerable, but invincible.” Researchers studied the protective factors those children either intrinsically had or developed. With the exception of emotional support outside the family, all the qualities these children demonstrated were personal to them.
In the last two decades, systems approaches to development have focused resilience studies on other protective factors found in the macro systems of culture, society, and ecology. This helps us understand what happened to the other two-thirds of the children who did not fare well as they grew up. It also puts a spotlight on the increasing numbers of individuals who are dying early, succumbing to addiction, ending up in prison, suffering from chronic physical and mental health conditions, and experiencing chronic, intergenerational poverty.
Two recent books highlight the concerns about the larger systems that have created an unequal and disastrous life for many people. Sarah Smarsh, author of the New York Times bestseller, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth relates the personal saga of growing up in a family beset by the many problems caused by economic inequity. I heard her speak about her book and was impressed by her intelligence, insight, and ability to communicate. I am currently over half way through her book and, admittedly, finding it so difficult to read the truth she tells. She explodes the myth she describes as “a democracy without castes.” The idea that anyone, regardless of means or background, can make it economically and socially is categorically untrue. The safety net or ‘protective factors’ are simply not there for far too many people.
Another book by a favorite author, Nicholas Kristof, and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, chronicles his experience growing up in Yamhill, Oregon. The experience of his family and peers reflects the same tragedy Sarah Smarsh describes.
Kristof and WuDunn explain it this way, “Americans also bought into a misconceived ‘personal responsibility’ narrative that blamed people for being poor. It’s true of course that personal responsibility matters: People we spoke to often acknowledged engaging in self-destructive behaviors. But when you can predict wretched outcomes based on the Zip code where a child is born, the problem is not bad choices the infant is making. If we’re going to talk about personal responsibility, let’s have conversation about social responsibility.”
When stressors become so intense that resilience is overwhelmed, people suffer and will fail. As a mental health practitioner, I am often aware that we lack good mental health and substance abuse resources for people of lower-to-middle economic means.
It is disturbing to learn that foster children in Kansas have had to sleep in agency offices, often experiencing sexual abuse. Other have no stability, living in dozens of foster homes. In Missouri, a 48-year old woman, suffering from emphysema and struggling to find day work, is in danger of jail time for failing to pay child support. More than seven million Americans have had their driver’s licenses suspended for failing to pay child support or court-related debt, meaning that they may not reliably show up at work.
Finding ways to confront these issues definitely helps my own mental health and my sense of personal responsibility. One of my most rewarding activities is a monthly trip to the Topeka Women’s Correctional Facility to co-lead a Buddhist study group. The women, many from the circumstances described by Kristof, WuDunn, and Smarsh, are learning skills, getting sober, reconnecting with family members, and finding a new sense of self. I know it will be difficult for them when they return to society. There are few safety nets for them. I want this to change.
Together, we can take action. Start where you can. Inform yourself. Information is power. Find ways to use your time, your financial resources, and your connections to make a difference. If you are a parent, find volunteer activities for your family. Become more politically active. Understand that, as a society, we need to provide job training, substance abuse and mental health programs, and find ways to decrease the number of people who are being incarcerated. Be a non-judgmental person who supports others and empowers them to succeed. Relationships are a significant protective factor.
Societal problems happen over time, and it will take time to make them better. Take care of yourself so you may help, in whatever way you can, to make a difference. We can do this!
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Jude LaClaire, Ph.D., LCPC, is a counselor, educator and author. For counseling appointments, seminars, training, speaking engagements or information on Neurobehavioral Programs or Imago Couple therapy call 913-322-5622. For more information about Jude LaClaire or the Kansas City Holistic Centre go to