This Being Human


– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

“There are not enough good things said about the people that put themselves in harm’s way every day for us. What does that say about us?” wrote Julie Hébert.

Police (and Fire and Ambulance personnel) keep us safe from ourselves and clean up our messes. They respond to the results of human pain and depravity, accidents and mistakes and mindless hurrying and inattention, suicides, crimes of passion or planned crime assisted by opportunity. You and your loved ones would not be safe or subject to being saved were it not for our police.

Many of us have acquired our understanding of police work and life chiefly through the lens of movies and TV. We might look up from time to time and remind ourselves that TV is not a faithful presentation of reality. It’s entertainment, the News too, developed to make money when advertisers buy commercial time. Our minds tend to immerge into, or merge with, the stuff on the screen.

Police work, on the other hand, is an immersion into the often unseen reality around us that is not in any way for the faint of heart. Police spend about 80% of their time with that 20% of the population who are the most tragic and unfortunate among us, and who are often violent, addicted, abused and suffering terribly. They expose themselves to situations and conditions from which most of us would run. Police enter worlds foreign to most of us, the world of the abused child or spouse, of shocking suicide, of those who’ve been raped, beaten, cheated; they witness the hatred among us, the damage done by people to other people.

“How was work today, dear?”

Police have huge hearts. I’ve seen their pain and their dedication to doing the right thing, to protect us and to catch the bad guys that would otherwise do us harm. They care deeply about their city and the people and families and businesses and brick and mortar that make it up.

If we know that our soldiers are risking everything that they have to serve Canada in Afghanistan and elsewhere, we need to also know that police embrace huge personal risks for our wellbeing. On a ride along I’ve seen female officers wade in to a stew of drunks fighting in a dark alley, replacing chaos with order and safety (although the drunks surely thought less of it). Even so, police work may not be the physically most dangerous job in the world, but it is one of the most emotionally dangerous jobs out there.

The work may be dull and passive or hyperactive and pressured in the extreme, changing abruptly without forewarning. If you know the exhaustion of vigilance, straining to influence outcomes as though through hope and thought alone, hour upon hour, you might know part of the burden that accompanies investigation or search and rescue.

A recent paper in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior confirms what all officers lament, which is that the uncivil, discourteous, and disrespectful behaviours by the public are a significant source of their stress.

I’ve heard some of their examples of how the public behaves and you have to shake your head. The public sometimes acts like a teenager in full huff, biting the hand that helps them. Suffering undeserved abuse by an ungrateful public is terribly ironic and rather inhumane. But then it’s a cop’s job, as it is a parent’s, to be polite and patient and to labour emotionally (another stressor).

Please, be an adult with our police. Practice courtesy, play nice, say thank you and respect that they are people doing a very difficult job – for you! And if you offend in some way and get caught, remember, it’s your fault.

Psychological Conditioning

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Long ago, in a land far, far away, a grown man named Ivan Pavlov rang a bell before he gave hungry dogs some food. He did this after noticing that the dogs began to salivate whenever they saw his assistant, who was the one who always brought them their meat. After the bell was paired with the food a few times the dogs would salivate just to the ring of a bell.

This type of learning (we call this classical conditioning) changes some physical or emotional system that we can’t intentionally control. Other kinds of learning effect voluntary systems, but in life the two are always jumbled up together, inseparable.

Generally, when one thing possibly signals another, a common reaction is forged in our body-brain-mind. Evolution has ensured that just the whiff of a known predator will evoke the original behaviour and stress reaction. In this way, our past is carried forward, sometimes like an invisible hitch-hiker and sometimes as a known companion.

We don’t condition ourselves any more than those dogs decided that slobbering to a bell would be cool. We’re conditioned by the events in our life. Our body-brain-mind is always “on” for learning, a super-absorbent system soaking up significant events, and soaking them up so richly and deeply that we actually embody the significant events of our life.

Conditioning can happen way outside of our awareness. For example, an established finding is that our immune system can be conditioned. If rats are given a novel sweet drink paired with a tasteless drug that suppresses the immune system, the later offering of that sweet drink minus the drug brings about the same immune suppression. ‘Remembering’ bad food and bad situations through conditioning for the rest of our days is a big survival advantage.

Advertizers vigourously work these animal abilities, conjuring money (from our pockets!) through conditioning. Ad repetition, product packaging and placement, trend-peer pressure, pairing products with sex, social status and success, even humour, all have the desired effect.

Have you ever thought, “Why did I do that?” When what we want and what we do conflict, we have a purer moment in which to behold the power of conditioning. It’s spooky to become aware that what we think may be very different from how we’ve been conditioned. Don’t believe everything you think, but do believe that what you think and do may be an echo of past conditioning.

If all of the emotional and stressful moments of your life trigger learning, imagine just how much conditioning has taken place! Conditioning establishes our tendencies to avoid and to pursue. Habits, phobias, worrying, our self-concept, our patterns of thought and how we evaluate things are shaped by conditioning. The whirl and convolutions of our conditioning shape our dynamics.

We would quite simply be extinct if we did not retain the physical and emotional and sensory representations of dangerous and threatening experiences. Even though we don’t suffer the same grim threats as our forebears, life leaves it’s impressions in the same ways. Conditioning charts a course of reactions when similar moments come up later. Conditioning means we’re more like Velcro that Teflon. For all of us, it isn’t a question of whether we’ve been conditioned by life’s pain, but by how much. As Wavy Gravy (the Grateful Dead’s official clown) says, we’re all bozos on the same bus!

For all of us, our minds (and bodies) have unavoidably and without a doubt been deeply conditioned by past experience. It reminds me of the caution that you’ll find on your car’s passenger side rear view mirror – Objects (from your history!) May Be Closer Than They Appear.


– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

What Scrooge might have said but which Dickens wrote elsewhere (A Tale of Two Cities) seems to apply to the Christmas season for many of us: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us”.

The Christmas season is trans-sensory. The music, lights, aromas, tastes and new winter’s chill encourage heart-glow. Messages bloom about togetherness. The scent of love and goodwill mingles with mistletoe. People come together to celebrate their knowing of one another and the bounty of family and friendship.

Our culture has taught us since birth a felt sense of what is important for Christmas and the Holiday Season. But on the other hand, we have to be careful that what we actually do and get involved in and realize during this time of year is not unhealthy.

For many people the danger of hope is felt most acutely at this time of year. It’s a problem for people who feel separate, injured and remote from the happiness that others and the season itself prescribes.

A recent study found that non-celebrants (e.g., Sikhs, Buddhists) felt some decrease in well-being in the presence of Christmas decorations. A follow-up study found that reduced feelings of inclusion explained the change in well-being. Dominant cultural symbols in a culturally diverse society, even those that carol good-will toward everyone, may unintentionally serve to alienate and depress.

And from the ‘No surprises here file’ come the findings from a paper in which children’s letters to Santa were analyzed. They report that the majority of letters pleaded wants and desires, with a minimum of needs and hopes and dreams conveyed. The researchers concluded that “this implies that for children Christmas seems to be a rather unspiritual festival concerning having things rather than dreams coming true”. The spirit of post-modern consumption conditions the cradle-to-grave splurging that advertizers are shooting for, embodied in the U.S. Black Friday – but more than the Friday seems to be so blackened.

People spend money like there’s no tomorrow. The problem is that there is a tomorrow, Virginia, and it brings bills of Christmas past. Is there freedom and choice here? To spend more than we have or more than we can afford creates a stress that we all know too well. Being realistic is always a gift to our health, and particularly so with our finances at this time of year. If your children’s wish lists are beyond what is appropriate financially or otherwise, an opportunity presents itself to talk with them about money and the greater meanings in life.

Jolly Old Saint Cynic-less may not see the sad truths and cultural dramas that play out at this time of year. But the seasonal spirit and the hope it promotes undoubtedly nudge a prevailing positive shift. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find any recent research showing the healthfulness of Christmas but one. A large British study reported that people suffering family and partner relationship problems and social isolation commit deliberate self-harm less during the week of Christmas. But people who episodically used alcohol spiked a 250% increase in self-harm on New Year’s Day.

The heartfelt gift of the seasonal values of goodwill, love, compassion and generosity is the wisdom and light that can’t be bought. If only those values were avidly promoted year-round; a New Year’s resolution, anyone?

Resolutions for Change

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

The New Year resolution is a healthy but often unsatisfying cultural ritual. The Rez may cause more dread than hope because most of us know it as the humbling half-serious failure with which we start each New Year. Ugh! More often, we just think, “Why bother!” Even so, the Rez comes to mind each year as a taunt, “Do I have what it takes to do it?”

Let’s look at this from a couple of new angles and see if we can’t rehabilitate the Rez.

Right up front, notice the ‘solution’ in resolution. Ah, so what’s the problem? Is something wrong? Yup, because all resolutions are about desired healthy change. It’s the wise ounce of prevention. Unfortunately, as we all know, changing anything about how we live isn’t easy. It turns out that the Rez is a light-hearted approach to a very difficult undertaking, like entering the Tour de France on a whim (I must resolve not to exaggerate things so!). And there you have my axe to grind, that the Rez has had the paradoxical effect of teaching people that they can’t really change (or win the Tour de France).

Well, I’m here to tell you that we sure can change. But change is easier when you know in advance that it’s harder than you’d think.

Making durable and sustained change (not of the three week variety) is really about making a change in how we’re living. After all, we wouldn’t be making a resolution if we were fully content with the job we were doing.

Change and the Rez point to some unknown and unpractised world, a way of living that is unfamiliar. We want to do something new. Because it’s new, we haven’t learned to live in that way yet. It’s not yet automatic and customary. As long as something isn’t automatic and habitual, attention and vigilance are absolutely essential.

Like a radio station pumping out hits from the past, our mind pumps out tempting ‘reasons’ to drink or smoke or eat or lay around. It’s not because our mind in some way wants or is designed to keep us from doing what’s better for us, it’s because our mind more easily does what it’s always done.

It’s our nature to do things on automatic pilot. The moment we become unaware, we revert to our automatic patterns, our established ways, our habits. If your Rez is targeting fast-food, watch how your mind greases the way to those fries with quick casual permission, rationalizing like a pro. If we’re paying attention and aware then we can play the superhero and defeat the automatic thought. This can be an epic fight sometimes, a fight which we get better and better at with practice. That’s the point of the Rez, it needs to be practiced over and over. Fall down nine times, get up ten. The key is being aware and catching the automatic foe red-handed. But you have to know that being unaware is too easy, partly because when we’re unaware, we’re unaware that we’re unaware.

So another thing that we have to get ready for is those moments of truth when our resolution stands in the spotlight. We have to be ready for the unfamiliarity of it. Notice that we have deeply engrained habits to recoil from unfamiliarity. We have to see that it’s unfamiliar and that this unfamiliarity is the place where change happens. Effort is expended to do the things that we haven’t yet learned to do automatically. We may worry about failing at these moments. But looking at that worry each time is exactly the thing to do. It’s just a fear, and if it isn’t confronted it will take over and take you places literally against your will. Embody the ‘resolute’ in resolution!

I love how Wendell Berry put it:

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.”

Cycle of Badness

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

How do we become psychologically troubled? Oh, let me count the ways…

For some of us the seeds of our most harmful and simultaneously puzzling behaviours were sewn so long ago that it makes sense that we may not now clearly see how we got here.

As a general example, let’s suppose that as a little one, doing the things that a little one does, we’re scolded by an overly stressed parent, perhaps even a young parent who is still rather unresolved about his or her own life. What if we hear, “What the hell’s wrong with you!”, or “You just make me sick”, or “You stupid brat”. And we hear some number of those judgments with some frequency, because an unresolved parent may be unresolved for years. Being overwhelmed and bursting out with angry verbal smacks is a regrettable and unintended pattern that a stressed parent may have.

As little people we internalize the things we hear. If these big people tell me I’m bad, then, ouch, I must be bad. As the negativity continues the message of badness is strengthened, conditioning deeper feelings. A growing mind also explores this badness, a self-protective curiosity that helps with learning about the conditions and contingencies of badness.

In time a young one may do bad little things to see what happens, testing their standing in their relationships. It might unfold that ‘bad behaviour’ is met with some greater frequency of more or different scolding, with neglect or with surprising understanding, making the mystery more complex and more important to explore.

Our ‘badness’ becomes something that we begin to participate in, born of our essential emotional curiosity, and a dynamic cycle spills forward. With more negativity, withdrawal or resentment and anger become the roommates of the question about our badness and whether we’re loveable. Being ‘bad’ may look rebellious, but it’s often a litmus test, with the ‘proof’ of how loveable we are residing with the one(s) who does the judging. Kids and teens may so test and do scary things secretly. Some number of those secret things may be discovered and the judgment cycle creaks forward again.

If the pain and question about our badness remains unresolved and is carried forward into our teens and young adulthood, we may find that we’re still doing bad things like drinking, taking drugs, skipping responsibilities, having random sex, vandalizing. Seeking acceptance by peers gains even greater importance, as if they have the power to give us value. Independence and dependence, acceptance and rejection, good and bad, self-determination and helplessness, now and then – borrowing from Cormac McCarthy, if this isn’t a mess it’ll do until a mess gets here.

Lots of research shows that when we have been mistreated as kids we are much more vulnerable to developing substance, psychological, physical and social problems later. Also, because most ‘bad things’ can provide ‘good feelings’ from their direct effects or from temporarily decreasing stress, ‘bad things’ can become a life-feature, a habit.

We hopefully reach the point in our development where we are able to look at our life and ‘discover’ our own responsibility for what happens to us next. When we see that we have been carrying the question and exploration of our badness and of being judged forward, we realize at last that we have different options. “Ah, I’m hurting myself here! If I do something that’s bad for me, of course dad/mom/teacher/boss will disapprove. It’s really about me doing something bad to myself.”

That one’s life is up to oneself is a pivotal developmental epiphany.