Atonement and Resilience

How can the concept of resilience be applied to atonement between victims of crime and perpetrators of crime? Last week, I visited a class at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor called The Atonement Project where we discussed that very question.

Atonement activist Shaka Senghor

The class is the brainchild of Shaka Senghor, and he has worked with The University of Michigan and the MIT Media Lab to make his dream a reality.  As he recounts in this TedX Midwest lecture, Shaka was incarcerated as a teenager for taking someone’s life in a drug deal. How did he become so hardened that he pulled the trigger during a fight? How did his dreams of become a doctor go awry on the streets of Detroit? How did he turn his life around and become a proponent of atonement? As Shaka explains, no person should ever be considered beyond recovery or rehabilitation. As he tells in his memoir, Writing my Wrongs, for Shaka, uncovering his pain and learning to atone for his mistakes came through reading and writing.

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Along with my dear friend Professor Ashley Lucas, Shaka guides 16 students at the University of Michigan in a class on The Atonement Project. Ashley has been visiting prisons for the last 20 years to see her father. And she has written a play based on interviews she did with family members of incarcerated persons called Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass. She has done countless creative arts workshops inside prisons. And he has co-authored a book on women prisoners, Razor Wire Women.

Professor Ashley Lucas Through the Visiting Glass

Through their class, Ashley and Shaka reach out of their own pain to students who are willing to reach out to prisoners, their families, and victims of crime. The students go out in groups of two or three either into prisons or into communities affected by violence and crime and run creative arts workshops—painting, literature or theater. Their goal is to re-humanize people whose humanity has been harmed. Their energy and commitment was a tremendous inspiration to me. My last words to the students was that their work is a witness to a world that wants to shut itself off from other people’s pain.

I shared with the students about my own research among Haitian immigrants, and my recent research on young adults who have had traumatic life experiences. I asked them to read my favorite article on resilience, Chapter 1 of the Handbook of Adult Resilience, called “Resilience: A New Definition of Health for People and Communities,” by Alex J. Zautra, John Stuart Hall, and Kate E. Murray.I also assigned a blog by positive psychologist Robert E. Quinn where he answers a prisoner’s question about how focusing on the good can help his life that has been so full of bad.

Here are some students’ comments about the reading and discussion.

“I must have underestimated the human capacity to make something bad into something good. What stuck with me about our conversation about resilience is the universality of it. From Professor Mooney’s work in Haiti to our work in Michigan prisons, it is clear that human beings do not need to be ‘psychological superheros’ to respond to hardship with transformation. Hearing her speak about community and individual resilience restored my sense of purpose in regards to the Atonement Project. If I can convince people to hold on to hope through creation (art, theater, writing), I will have done my job well.”

Beautiful, sister!

“I really appreciated learning that from her [Margarita Mooney’s] numerous interviews with victims of violence or poverty, that it is often people who have less or people in non-Western cultures who are more accepting of people’s suffering and help build resilience as a community.”

So true!

“The first question I asked in regards to resilience is about its opposite effect. Might resilience be a bad thing, I thought? Why should people be happy about adapting to traumatic situations? After we discussed the notion of ‘hope’ with regards to resilience, I realized I was talking about something else. My concerns are regarding what is called ‘learned helplessness’ and that is different than resilience… Without this hope as a positive outcome, a person would always stay stuck in the box of suffering which becomes a defeatable attitude. Professor Mooney said that she is amazed how material hope is. That makes good sense to me.”

Wonderful! Martin Seligman would be proud that you know what learned helplessness is and how it differs from resilience.

“Recently I’ve been thinking about expectations of resilience, especially in terms of our interactions with people who have experienced trauma. I think it’s important to look for the little signs of resilience, in lieu of expecting great gestures. A smile, a willingness to talk about one’s challenges, positive social interactions, embracing one’s emotions (be they sad, angry, happy), empathy—these to me are the subtle signifiers of the resilient.”

Beautifully written!

“I think resilience is a highly relevant skill to have, not only in our own Atonement Project but also in much of life. Previously, I had thought resilience was just the ability to ‘bounce back’, but upon our class discussion with Margarita Mooney, I have learned it encompasses much more than that. We discussed and read about how resilience is often incorporated into entire communities, not just within the self…I remember reading before class that resilience takes into account our vast range of emotions/experiences, not just a lack of negative and a desire for positive outcomes.”

So glad you now have higher expectations that bouncing back!

“Resilience applies to my work with the Atonement Project because the two exist simultaneously. Both resilience and atonement require an acknowledgement of the situation, the pain and suffering and adversity that you are going through, or that you have inflicted upon another, of interior self-reflection. They work in a very cool circular relationship. Atonement is both an act of resilience, as well as a step towards resilience. It goes beyond the idea of just getting by in the face of adversity. Resilience is an act of taking life into your own hands.”

Yes, reflection is key to both atonement and resilience. Brilliant!

“Margarita’s discussion on resilience was eye-opening. The point that she mentioned that struck me the most was the way the United States learned to only desire the good emotions, while desiring to completely eliminate the bad ones. However, if there is any lesson that I learned here, it is that resilience—this notion of seeing the good through the bad—is so incredibly essential to human connection.”

Absolutely. Connection to other human beings requires a willingness to share their pain, not ignore it.

“Resilience is more than just getting back to zero or having overcome and physically surviving adversity. Resilience is a state of mind that requires having awareness about future positive events. You can’t just survive something tragic—you need to have the state of mind to move forward in a positive light. This doesn’t mean to forget what has happened but to learn from it. In order to even being to atone you need to have this resilient state of mind to understand that there are positive things ahead. Conversely you need to atone to be able to move on and see the positive.”

Resilience is not forgetting but transforming. Well put.

“I learned that resilience comes in different forms of manifestations. Whether you are resilient depends on your environment, personality, etc. Being resilient doesn’t mean simply getting back to ground zero, but rather continuing to move along and grow and prosper in your life. The talk left me uneasy about the line between what role mental illness/depression/drug addiction plays in resilience. I am continually astounded by the resilient people who surround me every day. It makes me believe that the human psyche is capable of anything.”

Thank you. We should keep talking about mental illness/depression/drug addiction and resilience.

“I learned how expansive the process of resilience is. Not only is it overcoming one’s trauma but it also means sustaining that positive outlook and going beyond just getting past an event. I want to bring this into the Atonement Project by encouraging a goal-setting mindset. Goals, a positive future, maintain and sustain this resilience. Getting over what landed you in prison is not enough. It is necessary for you, who you’ve hurt, and your community to ‘get over it’, come to terms about it TOGETHER and set goals to sustain this positive approach.”

Resilience only occurs with others. TOGETHER. Amen.

“The idea of resilience as a forward momentum, as an affective engagement into the future, is a concept I will take with me not only into the prison workshop but throughout my life. I will honor the challenges and struggles I’ve faced as opportunities for developing new capacities, not merely as set-backs.”

Keep moving forward, and let those setbacks make you stronger!

“I thought that resilience brought me a new perspective on atonement. It made me think how a person almost needs to reach resilience before they can reach atonement. Resilience is a very difficult process and I think it’s very important for the human psyche. Resilience gave me a new perspective when I think about the people we work with and what they’ve been through. I think resilience can bring people together to overcome difficult obstacles.”

Resilience is difficult and rewarding indeed. Preparing a talk on resilience and atonement was challenging for me, but as you can see from these comments, it was extremely rewarding. Thank you for your inspiration and witness.

Googling Tradition

Instructions on mantillas can be found at

Dear Google: Can you tell me how to put on a mantilla? My stifled laugh turned into a snort when the young woman standing behind me in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome desperately asked Google about an old-fashioned Catholic tradition. After Vatican II, lay women mostly stopped covering their heads before going into Catholic Churches. Even many religious sisters abandoned the habit. In the swarm of thousands of people waiting to get into St. Peter’s for Christmas Vigil Mass in 2012, women’s hair flowed abundantly.

The elegantly dressed Latin American woman behind me spent 30 minutes trying to cover her hair with a lace mantilla. Every time she thought she had succeeded, her mantilla slid down the side of her head or the front of her face. Clearly she was trying on a tradition she didn’t normally practice. Her last resort was to turn to Google for help. Her struggle with the mantilla reminded me of the book “Tradition in a Rootless World,” in which Lynn Davidman describes how Jewish women in New York embraced an orthodox Judaism. Free to choose whatever they want, young Jewish women chose traditions their elders spurned. Similarly, it is mostly younger Catholic women today who wear a mantilla to Mass.

I like to practice old traditions, too. One time I even wore a saree to the baptism of an Indian-American Catholic baby. Would you like the Gujarati wrap? my Indian hostesses asked me. Apparently it’s different from the Malayalee wrap. I had no idea that different ethncities in India wrapped sarees differently, but since I had a choice, I requested the Burrito Wrap.

What’s the Burrito Wrap? When I make burritos, I lay the tortilla flat and add the beef, cheese, and assorted condiments. Then I wrap, wrap, wrap, wrap and finally flip! You have a perfect burrito: nothing sticking out.

Not so with the Gujariti saree wrap. First I tried on the petticoat and walked into the living room to show everyone. As I twirled around showing off my Indian clothes, one Indian man gave me a puzzled look, took me by the arm, and led me upstairs. That’s an under-garment! You don’t go out in that! he explained. I thought petticoat was a fancy word for skirt. But upon closer look, I realized I was wearing a transparent, lace-covered slip meant to protect the exquisite saree, not my purity.

Already beet red, next I put on the “blouse.” That’s a funny name for basically a sports bra with short sleeves! Pull, pinch, pin those sleeves tight! Your torso can hang loose but not your arms!

On top of that sports bra with tight sleeves plus a slip, two Indian ladies wrapped me in six yards of sequined saree material. Flip, twirl, wrap; flip, twirl, wrap; flip, twirl, wrap. The saree was finally on me, but my mid-riff was still exposed! Sarees are carefully designed so that you can wear the same one your whole life, so all the extra material got crammed into my waist. I looked pregnant.

How can I go to a Catholic Church with my torso exposed and carrying four yards of material on my belly? Could you wrap me up like a burrito, I pleaded? You know, use all that material to support my flab rather than accentuate it?

You look great, they reassured me. You don’t need a Burrito Wrap! Wanting to please my hosts, I smiled and posed for some pictures. The wrapping ceremony took so long we were late for Mass and parked far away. Rushing across the parking lot and up a big hill, I didn’t want to get the bottom of the saree dirty or trip on it. So I bent over, picked up the saree, and carried the bottom of it by my waist.

What are you doing?!?!? Two Indian men chided me. Huh? I queried them. You can’t pick up your saree like that!!!! We can see your ankles! It made no sense that my torso could be bare but I could not show my ankles. I was terrified that if I tripped on the hill, the precarious wrap would come undone. I pictured myself rolling down the hill with all my juicy cheese sliding out of the wrap, just like when I mess up my burritos. I stared defiantly at those gentlemen who spent the morning confused about how to wear their own traditional garments. I kept the saree by my waist until I was safe on level ground.

Once inside the church, I kept twirling around, trying to use all that flowy material to create my own Burrito Wrap. I never succeeded, and was quite relieved to take the saree off that evening. Comfortably back in their own Western clothes, my Indian friends confessed that they had only worn sarees three times in their whole lives—and mostly since they left India.

Why does a woman outside St. Peter’s ask Google to instruct her on a Catholic tradition she was never taught? Why do migrants in the diaspora adopt traditions they barely observed back home? Traditions are an important part of our collective identity. Special events like a trip to Rome or a baby’s baptism are occasions where we want to symbolize our religious or ethnic group belonging.

We mostly take our traditions for granted; so much so that many youth today feel rootless and search for traditions. One freshman I taught could not relate to Victor Frankl’s inspiring book Man’s Search for Meaning because he felt like he belonged to no meaningful tradition. The survivors of the Holocaust camp Frankl described found meaning in their families and Jewish faith. But this student had been told his whole life to define meaning for himself. I was stunned to hear an 18-year old complain that he is tired of being told to define the purpose of his life. How can his life have meaning if he doesn’t belong to a group that teaches him about meaning? he asked.  He didn’t have a religious identity, an ethnic identity, or any group identity. Consequently, his life lacked one core element of meaning. The next year, he joined a fraternity. He reassured me that his desire to join a fraternity was not to have drinking buddies but to belong to a group that gave his life meaning.

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argues that personal narratives need to be embedded in traditions and institutions that give our lives collective meaning. Religions, nationalities, ethnicities and universities with their many fraternities, sororities and sports teams all remind us that our lives have meaning as part of a narrative that is bigger than ourselves. Wearing a mantilla, a saree, a fraternity shirt or a college baseball cap links us to a group.

Embracing someone else’s tradition is a symbol of respect for their group. So despite my nervous debut wearing a saree, when I was invited to an Indian-American wedding, I bravely asked my Indian-American friend to help wrap me in my saree. Google didn’t have instructions for a saree Burrito Wrap, but we found a pretty cool You Tube video where an Indian woman teaches an Indian-American woman to be a “good Indian girl” by putting on a saree.  We laughed and acted out the scene. When I walked outside, my neighbors stopped to take pictures of me in my gorgeous saree. You too can turn to YouTube to learn how to be a good Indian girl. Check it out right here.

Previous generations rejected traditions in favor of individuality. But for many young people raised in today’s society that exalts individual autonomy, where our personal identity is malleable, and where our closest relationships change frequently, there is something very appealing about traditions. Even when you have to Google a particular tradition, even when a tradition is not from your own ethnicity, and even when others hardly practice those traditions anymore, traditions link us to other people. Traditions link us to a past and to a future. Traditions look good in Facebook pictures.

Can an individual life be meaningful without any tradition? Perhaps no more than a baby can survive on his own. Traditions help fulfill man’s search for meaning, a quest that is essential to being a person, and a quest that must be fulfilled in relation to others. What are the traditions that give your life meaning? What social practices tie you to others?

Surviving and Thriving in the Northeast Winter

Cute-as-can-be Canadian Polar Bear!

Canadian polar bears taught me an important lesson: layers keep you warm when it’s freezing out. Temperatures today in New Haven went to 0 Fahrenheit, so when I finally ventured out to try to dig my car out of more than a foot of snow, I also dug out the clothes I bought in Canada during the winter of 2002. The pink fluffy gloves and hat I bought recently at Talbot’s just would not do.

As I slid my legs into my Canadian snow pants, my fear turned to jubilation. Yes! Twelve-year old snow pants still fit!!! I dug past all the faux scarves and gloves I wore just to look fashionable when I lived in North Carolina. I needed the real stuff: ear muffs, a tight hat, and very well insulated muffins. Here’s another thing I learned in Canada: being cold doesn’t mean you can’t be fashionable. Just put the fashionable clothes on top of the warm ones. To top off my polar bear outfit, I put on a fashionable Indian pashmina.

I live in a faculty apartment on campus at Yale. Lately, I’ve been lonely, as my dorm built for 400 people is currently inhabited by about two people. Inside my spacious and gracious apartment, I’ve been feeling like a princess locked in a castle. Daring to break out into the freezing temperatures to clean my car was also partially a strategy to avoid cabin fever. I promised myself that my reward for cleaning my car would be to eat dinner out at a restaurant—largely because I’m dying to see other human beings.

Furthermore, I really, really needed my car to be ready so I could hit the road to Boston early tomorrow morning.  I can’t miss the birthday party of my 2-year old friend and adopted nephew Carston Friedman! Especially not after he sent me the most gorgeous Christmas gift ever: adorable pajama pants and a t-shirt that says, “I love Tia Margarita.” I loved his gift so much that I wore it all day today. I wouldn’t dare wear it outside, however, as the big red heart and the words “Tia Margarita” stretch out over the most curvaceous part of my body. If I wore that t-shirt out, I’d have to charge money for all the stares I would get.

Walking to the lot where I park my car, which is about 15 minutes from my castle at Yale’s Calhoun College, I congratulated myself for how warm I felt inside all my layers. I also psyched myself up as I marched through the snow: no matter what I found, I was going to dig that car out and I would not die of frostbite in the process! But when I entered the parking lot, my eyes bulged and my heart leapt: my car was totally clean.

I texted the owner of the parking lot:

Hey Mike. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Do you know who is the elf that cleaned my car? I’m driving to a 2-year old’s birthday party in Boston tomorrow and he would be sad if I missed it. I came over today to clean the car and move it overnight closer to Calhoun. But it’s totally clean. Please find the elf on your video camera that monitors this parking lot and thank him for me!!!!

A Wintry Day by the Christmas Tree on the New Haven Green

Since my car was clean, I decided to frolic in the snow by the New Haven Green. I even paused for a picture with the Christmas tree decorating the Green. Then I marched over to my favorite pizza place in New Haven, where I had pizza, drank a beer and wrote this blog.

To my chagrin, a rather perfect day ended with me losing my 2nd pair of glasses in as many weeks. The first pair disappeared somewhere at at NJ Turnpike rest stop on the way to my mom’s for Christmas. Tonight, I took my spare pair of glasses off for the picture by the Christmas tree, and I thought I stuffed them in my pocket. But when I looked for them, all that was left were the two rubbery bands that sat snugly around my ears to make the glasses more comfortable.

Sigh :( I may need new glasses, but at least I don’t have to buy new winter clothes to survive in New Haven.


The Happy Society Inspires Kentucky

Positive sociology has been inspiring Kentucky residents through the efforts of Beau Weston, the Van Winkle Professor of Sociology and Chair of Anthropology and Sociology of Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, and a blogger at The Gruntled Center: Exploring the Happy Society. Weston first developed a class he calls “The Happy Society”, using a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities to develop his syllabus and run a theory camp with students to test it out.

After a successful first run of “The Happy Society” at Centre College, Weston found out about my class on positive sociology when I was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He became my “Happy Society Teaching Buddy”, which basically means he was my reading partner and pedagogical coach as I taught this class for the first time. I learned from his lessons having taught the class, and innovated the syllabus and assignments to my own class.

This year, Weston’s class took on a new twist. Inspired by the classic Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, Weston organized the group into little platoons that had to carry out projects in the community. Small groups, we know from Burke’s insights and much recent research, can inspire ideas and generative creative energy far beyond our own minds.

As reported in the Centre College online newsletter this December 5, 2013:

“Using the idea of ‘little platoons,’ Weston modified the previous year’s happiness project, changing it from one the entire class completed to a group of small partner projects. ‘One of the main findings of happiness research is that working with others—especially friends—on a meaningful project is one of the most reliably happy-making of actions,’ he explains. ‘Thus the ‘little platoons’ project was born.’ Students worked with another classmate and created a platoon that would do something worthwhile. Michaela Manley ’15 and Clark Weber ’14 paired up to bring happiness to a local retirement home, McDowell Place. ‘Michaela and I both enjoy talking to our grandparents,’ says Weber, ‘and we realized that it would be a good idea to write down their happiest memories. We thought we would record memories of other elderly individuals in the community.’ “

Weston’s project resembles what I’ve done in the Calhoun Happiness Project, in which everyone had to choose a happiness buddy. This coming spring, I would like repeat in the Calhoun Happiness Project an assignment I devised at UNC: asking students to pick a student group they belong to (a sports team, publication, student government, etc.) and try to apply the principles of positive psychology and positive sociology to improve that group. To guide students next spring, I plan to have them read Ryan W. Quinn’s Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Organization. (The Lift blog has all kinds of great ideas…)

It’s only fitting that since my collaboration with Weston t started in part because I blogged right here on Black, White and Gray about my positive sociology class at UNC, that now I should blog about his successful class. It’s also striking that in teaching this material, we both independently reached a similar conclusion: happiness is not just an idea, it should be a practice, and we all benefit from having happiness buddies or little platoons to keep us focused on our resolutions and projects to improve our lives and that of those around us. Our students have obviously inspired our respective schools’ publications to write about our course, and the Calhoun Happiness Project has now been in the Yale Herald, the Yale Daily News and the Yale Alumni Magazine. Isn’t it great to see good news in the media, the classroom and the community?