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.

Unexpected Learning From Student’s Experiences of Loss

This past summer I lost a friend at church and a family friend to terminal illness and through these experiences, I’ve grown more aware how often death and dying emerges at my stage in the life course. Apparently I wasn’t alone in this either. I happened to be in conversation with the university chaplain one day a couple of months ago, and he remarked that while he had a total of 40 cases in which students lost a parent or significant family member last year, he has had 50 cases in the first two months of this semester alone. The reasons for this still elude me, but suffice it to say something that is a fairly rare occurrence is recurring with somewhat more frequency lately here in central Texas.

Recently a former student of mine informed that she too had experienced the loss of her mother. Lisa [not her real name] was in my class 3 semesters ago, she was relatively quiet but clearly focused, and she performed well in her writing assignments and tests. However her absences grew more and more frequent, until one day she sent an email to her teachers saying that her mother was gravely ill. Judging from some of her writing and her communications, this student came from a vulnerable minority community somewhere in the southwest US. Later I would learn that she was of Navajo descent and lived on a reservation where her mother served as a healthcare worker.

I remember from that semester the internal conflict she voiced between wanting to please her mother by completing her education and pursue an advanced medical degree, and staying by her side while her health continually declined. The stress got to be unbearable, and she sought counsel from the chaplain’s office who then requested faculty and administrators to provide her a supportive leave of absence. I had heard nothing from her until late in the summer when she submitted additional materials that were incompletes in the previous semester. Lisa was determined to gain credit for the course she took with me. This young woman delivered well in her make-up exam and final writing assignments and passed the course. Whether her mother was doing better or worse at that point I thought was not appropriate to ask so all remained quiet.

Another semester had passed and I was relieved to hear from Lisa that she was back at Baylor in the spring of 2012. Knowing little of what had transpired in the past months I kept an optimistic outlook that she must be here with her mother’s blessing. And then I received news from her this past fall that her mother had passed. Lisa left the university once more to look after her mother, and she confided that she was one of her mother’s caregiver from her family, and I would gather that she was likely managing a fair amount of the details surrounding her funeral. There’s no doubt that Lisa’s mother’s passing affected her deeply and it became a source of inspiration for her to finish college and go on to advanced education.

As is my penchant for social science research, reflecting on Lisa’s message drove me to spend a couple of hours looking through the literature on the effects of the loss of a parent. I consulted Mark Regnerus and a couple of other colleagues who are much more familiar with this area of sociology than me. Turns out few were familiar with this topic in the research-sense. Mark drew me to his recent publication, a response to critics, using analyses from his much-controversial study, the National Family Structures Study. In the article based on the sample of over 3000 young adults, he included two family structures, one for those who had lost a parent while growing up and whose surviving parent remarried (if you access the full article see the Tables and look for column 12, 117 respondents) and another column for those who lost a parent and the surviving parent did not remarry (column 13, 28 respondents). I was most interested in the latter since such individuals were growing up in a single-parent household which is often linked with worse outcomes for kids. As it turns out, these few individuals who grew up in these challenging circumstances report higher overall happiness, lower clinical depression, lower impulsivity higher income (Tables 1 and 2) and less often in therapy compared to respondents who grew up in intact biological families – and this was the case even after accounting for the respondent’s age, gender, racial background, mother’s education, and household income while growing up. This was intriguing, what might explain this?

In personal correspondence, Mark attributed this to resilience in these respondents’ lives when they were younger. Indeed that is probably one factor for sure. Loss of a parent at any time is a character-shaping experience, but all the more so during one’s early formative years. Important too are the circumstances surrounding the passing of a parent. Was it due to accident, homicide, suicide, or untreatable illness? As it turns out previous research in this area known as child bereavement suggests that these differences do not statistically distinguish bereaved children in their mental health capacities. In another recent study researchers found that bereaved children were more likely to exhibit delinquent behaviors during their growing up years. Psychologically this makes sense: a child in such circumstances is acting out their felt sense of loss and injustice perhaps. If there is no good in the world, why strive to be good yourself?

If we connect this study with Regnerus’ work perhaps there is some intervention that takes place that helps these bereaved children rise above their own desire to act out. This is another explanation that a different colleague suggested to me. Communities, family and friends are generally more sympathetic and perhaps more supportive when one comes from a household with a widow or widower. Perhaps they can well interpret the acting out behavior as a cry for help and they respond in kind.

In the most recent email I received from this former student, she shared that the loss of her mother and caring for her through the ups and downs of longterm illness was difficult, she now interprets her experience as one that will make her into an excellent physician. Moreover she attributes her resilience in the context of her personal faith in a God who now comforts her mother. Indeed I was reminded once again of Margarita Mooney’s book title “Faith Makes Us Live” in thinking about this student and perhaps the many young people who struggle to make sense of their loss and pain.

This Thanksgiving I am grateful for students like Lisa who have helped me understand their lives better. By sharing some of their stories, I’m reminded that teaching is indeed very relational, and it is very often teachers themselves who learn more than they anticipated.


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