Emotional Literacy in a Leader: A **Charrette, Anyone?

** A charrette: “A public meeting or workshop devoted to a concerted effort to solve a problem or plan the design of something.”

**Oxford Living Dictionaries

Yes, I am referring to politics, and you may have guessed I’m referring to the Democrats. That’s because I am one, if often reluctantly. I say the last because just about everywhere I look there seems to be expediency and opportunism put before loyalty to a real sense of integrity.

As I see it, we in America need leadership to help us in cultivating the motivation and capacity to empathize with others often different than us, by learning their back-story as one avenue. We need tools to listen and to take those different than us seriously—something that for these times seems rather foreign. We need someone who can help us grow in terms of our own emotional literacy—knowing our emotions so we can integrate and tame them and so they don’t overwhelm us and cancel our capacity to think.

By emotional literacy in a leader, here a President, I mean someone with capabilities in the realm of understanding also how emotions trump (the word just works) facts. I suggest that someone worthy of being a real leader of the US be someone who can help the rest of us get in touch with the fears, as one example, that can crush any hope of change or provoke a desperate need to follow the lead of someone who has little appetite for equalizing the realms of social and economic justice, as one example. I mean to suggest that a true leader for our times could help us by leading a campaign to have psychology and the information it has available, become accessible not only to big corporations and political movements but to the rest of us so we don’t have to constantly be manipulated and frequently manipulated into fear.

Integrity, then, might mean that a person/candidate would care more about the country and its people than about getting elected. I know that this might even seem extreme if not just ridiculous, because the candidates with integrity would conceivably feel compelled to interrupt their own narcissism, never a very popular pastime. They would instead help the public get to know who they are and what they stand for. And they would have to listen to constituents and even those who live among us and cannot vote.

I get several requests for support, political and financial from a few candidates every day. Am I with them? Will I promise my vote and my donations? “We” can beat “them” and we are already dividing into teams, while I for one am not sure about any of them, and am not sure if any of them have this emotional literacy and intention of helping people instead of elevating themselves.

Those candidates that do have any integrity will talk amongst themselves and see what they can do as a group to work together to give the American people an alternative. This would be an alternative to what many of us see as the rampaging and boundless lack of self-discipline of our current President. Before you know it the number of candidates will become obscene, not because diversity is a bad thing, but because demeaning and attacking the other candidates or ignoring them completely, will most likely for many of us provoke a lack of respect for any and all of them. That is, if we don’t get suckered in to feeling pushed into premature allegiances and team sport mentality.

You may think it’s silly, or naïve perhaps to talk about emotional literacy in a Presidential candidate. But unless he/she realizes how there are forces that prey upon us constantly to seduce us to buy their products and religions and votes as well, the candidates will not even know us enough to help us.

One arena in which we need help is in realizing for the first time or again, that to run a country we need to compromise. We need means for—not merely debating and debunking—but speaking in ways that make for civil conversations in which the purpose is communication, not denigration.

A movie that I just about beg you to see is “Best of Enemies”. It brings home the power of a structure designed with the sincere motivation of helping people hear each other out. This promotes empathy, learning, and sometimes the changing of minds. This is a beautiful thing, the changing of our mind, when we have the freedom and flexibility to be moved by points and people in ways that are genuine and not manipulative.

The film takes place in North Carolina in 1971 and tells the story of an integration battle in which a mediator was called in, a black man no less called in by a white man. What seems like an impossible stalemate is interrupted by the hard work, stubborn yet feeling people who allow new ideas and realities come into their own fixed worldviews. The mediator in question introduces the charrette, several days with helpful structure to aid the process of discussing important points without demeaning as the key tool, and also having people sitting at tables for lunch with people of a different race.

I say: let’s try it. Let’s at least not be duped into feeling we have to have decided on “our” candidate for President or anything else, before we have some inkling about the factors that include emotional literacy, integrity and giving a damn about us, by which I mean all of us.

I am a generally unapologetic liberal though I do apologize for making assumptions too often and too many, that I was right (and innocent) and I was enlightened while the other side was not. I know a bit better now that I have practiced and written more about the shadow, the darker sides that all of us have.

Our emotions are killing us, just about literally. They blind us to climate change or make us holler endlessly citing dangers while few are listening. Why are we blinded and/or why are so many people not caring or listening or hearing? These are questions we should start addressing.

There are reasons. And beginning to look at the reasons that problems and people’s humanity aren’t addressed, is as important as anything else. If we ignore the emotions behind the impasses before us that we can ill afford, we will flail around desperately, running on assumptions and superstitions. We will evolve no further in terms of our capacities for understanding more deeply, the conflicts and capabilities of ourselves and others. We will be devoid of curiosity and empathy.

The latter alternative seems the saddest one.




Radical Hopelessness, Immigration and Personal Reactions

On a mild spring Sunday a large group of local residents of Fort Collins, Colorado, was treated to an informative and provocative talk about immigration. The visiting speaker was Rev. Dr. Miguel A. De La Torre, Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver.  His books and passions and achievements are many and he has most recently written about white privilege and immigration.

The program, at the Plymouth Church, was sponsored by ISAAC, an interfaith Northern Colorado organization dedicated to giving sanctuary, and solidarity to immigrants crossing the border to the US from Mexico.

De La Torre told us about his idea of radical hopelessness, whereby people perform acts of justice, without the expectation of winning a fight or a cause. He shared his pessimism about deep and lasting social change—precisely because of the long-term history of domination and greed. (As one example, he suggested that should we see crime erased or nearly so, we would then have to demolish the private prison system, a big chunk of our economy.) He made it clear that it is by embracing the hopelessness that we can be free of the ego and high expectations of achievement and insistence on particular results.

De la Torre traced the beginnings of immigration crisis for us, a propos of Mexico and Latin America. He recounted the exploitation of some Latin American countries by the US, which instigated regime changes, often promoting one dictatorship after another. The normalization of “free trade”(NAFTA) unfortunately meant that big corporations took charge and ownership of local crops and other resources, negating the role of indigenous farming. This in turn made living safely and well for local people impossible, pretty much forcing them to come to the States, so often not out of hope but out of desperation.

He advocated that our role doesn’t end in being supportive or even kind, but that we as a country need to provide restitution for nations—for people– put into dire conditions by our foreign policies. For me this was a rather harsh wake up call, a bit like that I’ve experienced when I was pushed to confront my own role in racism and white privilege. Before that point, I more or less had felt the liberal glow of benign intention and image—one that turned out to be very shallow in the end.


To return to the matter of radical hopelessness, I do realize that often, in my work as a therapist, I feel I’m working in the dark and without evidence or certainty, as I’m pursuing a thread or behavior that has no completely predictable relevance or result. In addition there is the sober—and ultimately disappointing– awareness that however much any of us feel we are doing the right thing we don’t know what the ultimate impact is going to be. We may be barking up the wrong tree, following the advice or conventional wisdom of a given time. We take the wrong medicine; we get the wrong diagnosis; we treat our patients or our children with the smartest psychology and insights of the day and yet it can prove too little too late, or simply misguided.

When it comes to reflecting on a world so often based on domination, greed and on showmanship, there are many who want to close the door on these inconvenient truths. They say: It’s too much for me to take, so I don’t think about it and hide in my small world. Or, I do my good deeds and leave it at that, because I cannot stand thinking about the larger picture. We all compartmentalize some of the time so as not to fall to pieces from the strain of seeing too much that is out of our control, yet some people seem to do this without batting an eyelash.

I have trouble not caring for too long; call it sensitivity or vulnerability or pain. And I can’t quite embrace the hopelessness of feeling that people won’t become more successful in tackling the stubbornness of those in power.

I can’t embrace it perhaps because a cloud cover of pessimism is something that suffocates me and makes me too sad. Even so, I don’t feel—and don’t want to feel as of now–compelled to stop acting in the right direction when I know what that is, or when I can muster my motivation and stamina.



There is one factor that for me is huge here—that of loneliness. When I feel too lonely, that people around me won’t look at the greed and the anguish that we are directly or indirectly wrestling with, this is a particular kind of hopelessness wrapped up in desolation. It is a hopelessness beside and beyond that described by de la Torre. It can become disabling.

I clearly need company in this. Even if it has to start with my feeling entitled to my feelings and observations when I am alone. That would at least be a beginning of not hiding in shame or fear, the first steps to begin to own these things and share them out loud.

Oh, and by the way I’d like to mention that I’m also looking for a Presidential candidate who is familiar with emotional literacy, and who has that as a central part of his/her platform.

Not to be hopeless, but: Just what are my chances on this one?



****Meanwhile, this Easter/Passover any other holidays or no holiday at all, if you need combinations of humor, serious caring and having your perspective bounced on its head, please try:

“A Day Without a Mexican” (2004), and in theaters near you,

“The Best of Enemies”








Count the Titles as You May: 1. Watch Sam Rockwell Change his Mind. 2. Please do not dare again to tell me that if I liked the movie I’m pandering to white condescension. 3. Who is anyone to tell anyone how to feel about a movie? 4. I recommend “The Best of Enemies” with all my heart. 5. Is it legal to feel moved by a movie? 6. Are we ready for a charrette, anyone?



Okay, so you get the gist. I loved “The Best of Enemies, which I saw today in a local theater outside of my usual purview.

Not only did I love it and everything about it, including acting, directing and music, but also I experienced it as profoundly moving.

I am white; let’s get that straight at the outset. So I suppose with the flutter that has existed about the allegedly self-congratulatory theme of “Green Book” (a point of view with which I totally disagree), this film is going to hit the charts as something thin on substance and fat on self-flattery.

I want to say right away that I’m sick of the film and political correctness police telling me or anyone else how to feel about a film. Not only do they say how to feel or how to think but they block your emotional arteries so you can’t simmer with the ideas and emotions triggered in the experience.


A charrette, I found out tonight, is defined as follows: a meeting in which all stakeholders in a project attempt to resolve conflicts and map solutions. It’s pretty radical, in that it was radical for then and it would be radical—if necessary—for now.


The film takes place in the early 70’s in North Carolina where communication between black people and white people is all but impossible. Sam Rockwell is the Ku Klux Clan leader in the town where some issues of race come to a head. I don’t want to spoil this for you so I’ll leave the rest to your movie going outing.



The unlikely meeting of minds and hearts that we see in the film, could even happen today, if we don’t stay manipulated by people in power who want to see us fighting all the time. See the movie: you will see this is possible. Corny and sappy and sentimental or not, it is true. We need to start to see that not only is our taste manipulated but also we are encouraged by media and politicians to stay on the media high that an addiction to fighting maintains. For the first time in many moons I felt (I really felt it) tonight that listening to the other sides—having to sit at dining tables with them, having to see them as human—might be transforming.

I admit it: I was immersed in the performance of Sam Rockwell. But I was equally enthralled by the performance of Teraji P Henson. If it makes me a racist to mention him first, what else is new? Of course I’m racist: man, I’m white in America, how else could it be?

I have my own affiliations with that about which I’m writing.. One involves having been intimidated and traumatized (yes, even moi) by a level brutality of verbal and emotional assault centering on insult and invalidation.

I am not in a freedom movement or claiming status as a victim. But I can afford, I’m coming to think, feeling assertive about my right to feel my own feelings and think my own thoughts.

One of the crucial lessons we need on bullying in general is: Even if the person intimidating you or insulting the s—t out of you, yells louder or even sounds smarter, it doesn’t mean he/she/they are right.

We live in a land that is so divided. And beyond that there is really more pressure than we may realize to agree with the liberal or the conservative or the black or the white caucus. Sometimes we lose ourselves; we lose our voices and we lose our right to vote, not only for an elected official, but also for our taste in a film and the thoughts that can come from that. There is healing to be had here.

See the movie, and let me know what you think and how you feel about it. And try, as hard as you can, not to let the voices all around you dictate to you what the experience should be.








LOVE IS NEVER HAVING TO KNOW HE IS WRONG: The Limits of Loyalty in the Case of Michael Jackson





For those of us who remember or who have heard the famous lines of mush from “Love Story”, they seem now—I’d dare say at least to most of us—a bit ridiculous. They go, “Love is never having to say you’re sorry.” Of course that isn’t right; it can’t be.

Now that we have heard so much about the courage, the truth and the necessity of owning up to imperfection, we are conceivably more prepared to face imperfections in those we love as well. In fact we tend to face disappointment more frequently with and by those we love because in general we are more vulnerable to the letdown.

When we mythologize another person that is quite different.

We put them or see them on a pedestal and there is no place for them to fall but very far down. Celebrities are sometimes provoked to plummet by jealous bystanders. Sometimes they are dissected mercilessly by media vultures who come out to play after the celebrity has collapsed or died.

I honestly had not paid significant attention to accusations of child molestation against Jackson more than a decade ago. Perhaps this was because I was in ways thrilled by his music, his dancing, his electricity even as I was quite removed from his very huge and very involved fan base. Part of my detachment from the accusations at the time, may be due to the possibility that I didn’t want to disturb my own internal and unconscious need to protect his status, no doubt sensing the extraordinary vulnerability he seemed to have. Certainly he was fragile as I see it now, and given my being a psychotherapist, I no doubt would have been otherwise inclined to notice a guy who seemed comfortable only with children.

The HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland” is to me a carefully piece carried out with integrity. I have heard Michael Jackson say that anyone who would insinuate he would harm a child, must be evil and out for no good. I have seen myself, starting to be mesmerized by the seduction of Jackson’s words that conveyed a couple of things: One seemed to be the sense of “You have to believe me, I am hypnotizing you in this process”. The other seemed to be “You have to believe me; I couldn’t bear it if you didn’t”.

I understand the felt need to protect a fragile celebrity who is fundamentally weak and brittle. In my own family of origin my much older brothers were in the arts and I admired them at the same time that I could in spurts see their own moodiness and unhappiness. I lent myself to not letting myself see how self-involved my parents were. They were the boat that was carrying me somewhere and I couldn’t quite afford to acknowledge the instability of the ship amidst rocky waters. Michael Jackson’s current accusers worshipped and really loved him. They could also not quite afford to see the increasingly explicit sexual acts he performed with them as abuse. And they both felt responsible for doing harm also to him (as he had warned them would happen) should they reveal the truth of what was going on.

There is absolute loyalty to another person no matter what or there is enough loyalty to the truth in the relationship. My own kids, who were much less needy of supporting authority or celebrity, taught me to question the very notion of loyalty being an absolute value. Everything should be open to question and for sure should be open to the truth. One of the ways we love our children is to be loyal to their truth or a truth pertaining them even when it is inconvenient.

Michael Jackson may have “loved” children but he was too narcissistically self-absorbed to be able to really be considerate of their mental and physical health. Michael Jackson didn’t love these two boys, now men, with enough loyalty to being honest or allowing for their honesty. He made it clear, in fact, that the truth would ensnare all of them, punish them all forever, and certainly ruin Michael.

We are now the audience, the viewers, in some way the jury. If we sense that our own obligation is to let the truth in even when it punctures our own experienced need to protect narcissistically wounded people in our own life, we will try to process the complexities. As we work at being loyal to the truth, we will not insist on declaring the innocence of someone who clearly was a pedophile.

The men who have come forward deserve our loyalty. Whatever damages they are awarded, they will never compensate for the damage done to their beings, and to those who love them.

Michael Jackson’s musical brilliance doesn’t end and isn’t cancelled. What may have to be cancelled, though, is any contract any of us ever felt to hold up his integrity—an integrity he happened not to be capable of sustaining.





Will the Truth Matter in the Testimony of Michael Cohen?



A good friend asked me today if I believed the immensity of the testimony of Michael Cohen would have a similar effect on the American public as Watergate did. As a millennial, she asked with hope and suspense, something of me who had lived during the Watergate period. Why this is important is obvious to me, in that during the Watergate hearings much of the country was horrified, mesmerized, and galvanized in the watching of testimony that shocked and appalled many people. People wanted the details of the truth in fact, and seemed to settle for nothing less.

I told my friend I didn’t think so and talked about why that was.

Nobody (as I recall) said John Dean shouldn’t be listened to because he was going to get a plea deal. There was not yet the relativism about truth that we see today. If someone had evidence and it was seconded and affirmed again and again, well there was reason to believe the testimony.

I was not a Republican during Watergate, but I realized that people from any side of the aisle were frozen in disbelief and worry. The press was still sturdy in that you could get a fair share of fair mindedness wherever you looked. Of course there were conspiracy theorists but not to the extent we have this phenomenon today.

I have heard the Republican Party line in public be something like: Well, of course Michael Cohen is lying; after all he is a liar and has even confessed to lying before. He wants the three-year sentence to stand rather than the potential 70-year sentence he could have gotten if he didn’t testify. Nobody, as I recall, said lead witnesses in Watergate who had previously sworn loyalty to Nixon and lied about their own activities should be dismissed out of hand because they too were trying to limit their own prison sentences. In essence nobody said you couldn’t trust the testimony of someone who lied and who rescinded the lie in favor of the truth.

In a concise book called On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt (Princeton University Press, 2005) he called to mind Viggo Mortensen’s rendition of Tony Vallelonga, the Italian American who was security guard at the Copa before he became chauffeur to the African American musician Don Shirley, as portrayed in the recent film “Green Book”. In the movie Tony brags about being a superb “bullshitter”. When Dr. Shirley questions his apparent lack of shame in view of his being a liar, Tony clears this up, insisting he is not a liar. He is rather a “bullshitter”, someone who “just” convinces people to do what they don’t want to do. Frankfurt would agree with Tony’s self-assessment, I am pretty sure, because he distinguishes the bullshitter from the truth teller and from the liar.

According to Frankfurt, a liar knows he is lying or at the very least considers false that which he is saying. The honest person is telling the truth or at least perceives that to be so. The bullshitter, however, cares neither about truth or for that matter lies, at all, only about getting his or her way. Wow, this seems very relevant to today. In fact it feels like we have entered an era in which the actor voted the best not only wins an Oscar, but also the vote of the people. All one has to do is cast aspersions about the witness, and that is enough to call the person a liar and dismiss his/her offerings. That’s enough to discredit both the witness and possible facts, facts we need to have if we aim to move towards real democracy. Facts, if not taken to be important, are like a fragile disappearing species inhabiting less and less of human discourse.

A committee of some, on either side of any of the arguments today, can get together and at the very least probe for the discovery of what is true, if it can be known. Even if the truth is unpleasant to many, there are things we can do to work with it without trying to break each other down.

My hope, and perhaps it is a hope against hope, is that a majority of Americans will want the truth, wherever it lands. And that most people will want an honest President—at the very least someone with respect for his/her constituents, his/her job, and for reckoning with the truth as well.