J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Ellegy is a must read

I actually met J.D. Vance some years ago at a mutual friend’s wedding, though I honestly don’t recall much about him other than that he was a generally polite and intelligent gentlemen. Still, the mutual friend speaks very highly of the man, and given my respect for my friend, my ultimate conclusion is that J.D. is a genuinely good guy, which this book did nothing to change. If anything, hearing the story of his childhood amidst the culture of rural Appalachian whites only made his current state all the more interesting.

If you read this book without any intent to gain insight into societal issues, you will still not be disappointed. Vance’s writing is compelling and he spins a well thought narrative throughout. From the fiery rhetoric of his grandmother, affectionately known as “Mawmaw” (who frequently threatens to blow peoples’ body parts off upon any hint of threat towards her grandchildren), to the loving but ultimately tragic relationship with his mother, this is a story worth hearing for that sake alone. But I think to get the best out of the book, we must take Vance’s story in the context of the times, as window into a dark and rarely explored section of our society.

Vance’s paints a picture of a culture that at times exhibits admirable qualities. The hillbillies of Kentucky are fiercely loyal, protective, and insistent on handling matters themselves. When a child molester is caught, Vance’s grandmother brags about how he was found riddled with bullet holes before the justice system ever had a chance to be invoked. Mawmaw defends her grandchildren in a way that would make most mothers look like lightweights, at one point telling her own daughter that she will shoot her in the face if any more harms comes to Vance or his sister. And Vance credits her installment of the virtues of hard work and perseverance with his ultimate success. There is much to be imitated and lauded.

At the same time, Vance talks honestly about the darker underbelly of this forgotten corner of America. Physical abuse, drugs, and rampant familial chaos are commonplace, and often excused as normal rather than called out for the harm they cause. The so-called “nuclear family” is virtually non-existent, replaced by a revolving door of boyfriends through his life, ultimately causing him to grow cold and resistant towards forming any attachments. Underlying it all is a disturbing lack of personal accountability, where all problems are caused by some ever present, insurmountable external force. Vance tells of friends who complained after being fired from numerous jobs, seemingly blind to the fact that their own tardiness and poor work habits caused their demise.

Vance is careful not to give prescriptions for solving these issues that he feels he is not qualified to offer. But he does point out that the often simplistic outside view of poverty, that all poor people are merely downtrodden and working through hard times, is no more true than its polar opposite, that all poor are merely lazy and lack motivation. Rather, the picture is much more nuanced and painted in shades of gray. Yes, it’s true that welfare can be helpful in keeping food on the table, but it has led to the erosion of communal assistance and the larger familial unit, along with encouraging those in poverty to stay there. Child protective services, no doubt an overal force for good, inadvertently encourages children not to implicate their parents in abusive behavior, lest they be wrested from the very support structures they have known all their lives (in Vance’s case, his grandparents).

Ultimately, the book is a thoroughly enjoyable (though at times depressing) and informative read. Anyone who cares about the plight of the poor, especially white rural populations, should read this book. The vivid portrait of a culture in crisis may well reshape your views and ultimately the policies and actions you advocate for. In light of the rise of Donald Trump, whose emotionally targeted rhetoric plays directly into the fears and world views of those in the rust belt and coal towns of America, perhaps we can no longer ignore the plight of this silent majority of Americans.

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Ellegy is a must read

I actually met J.D. Vance some years ago at a mutual friend’s wedding, though I honestly don’t recall much about him other than that he was a generally polite and intelligent gentlemen. Still, the mutual friend speaks very highly of the man, and given my respect for my friend, my ultimate conclusion is that J.D. is a genuinely good guy, which this book did nothing to change. If anything, hearing the story of his childhood amidst the culture of rural Appalachian whites only made his current state all the more interesting.

If you read this book without any intent to gain insight into societal issues, you will still not be disappointed. Vance’s writing is compelling and he spins a well thought narrative throughout. From the fiery rhetoric of his grandmother, affectionately known as “Mawmaw” (who frequently threatens to blow peoples’ body parts off upon any hint of threat towards her grandchildren), to the loving but ultimately tragic relationship with his mother, this is a story worth hearing for that sake alone. But I think to get the best out of the book, we must take Vance’s story in the context of the times, as window into a dark and rarely explored section of our society.

Vance’s paints a picture of a culture that at times exhibits admirable qualities. The hillbillies of Kentucky are fiercely loyal, protective, and insistent on handling matters themselves. When a child molester is caught, Vance’s grandmother brags about how he was found riddled with bullet holes before the justice system ever had a chance to be invoked. Mawmaw defends her grandchildren in a way that would make most mothers look like lightweights, at one point telling her own daughter that she will shoot her in the face if any more harms comes to Vance or his sister. And Vance credits her installment of the virtues of hard work and perseverance with his ultimate success. There is much to be imitated and lauded.

At the same time, Vance talks honestly about the darker underbelly of this forgotten corner of America. Physical abuse, drugs, and rampant familial chaos are commonplace, and often excused as normal rather than called out for the harm they cause. The so-called “nuclear family” is virtually non-existent, replaced by a revolving door of boyfriends through his life, ultimately causing him to grow cold and resistant towards forming any attachments. Underlying it all is a disturbing lack of personal accountability, where all problems are caused by some ever present, insurmountable external force. Vance tells of friends who complained after being fired from numerous jobs, seemingly blind to the fact that their own tardiness and poor work habits caused their demise.

Vance is careful not to give prescriptions for solving these issues that he feels he is not qualified to offer. But he does point out that the often simplistic outside view of poverty, that all poor people are merely downtrodden and working through hard times, is no more true than its polar opposite, that all poor are merely lazy and lack motivation. Rather, the picture is much more nuanced and painted in shades of gray. Yes, it’s true that welfare can be helpful in keeping food on the table, but it has led to the erosion of communal assistance and the larger familial unit, along with encouraging those in poverty to stay there. Child protective services, no doubt an overal force for good, inadvertently encourages children not to implicate their parents in abusive behavior, lest they be wrested from the very support structures they have known all their lives (in Vance’s case, his grandparents).

Ultimately, the book is a thoroughly enjoyable (though at times depressing) and informative read. Anyone who cares about the plight of the poor, especially white rural populations, should read this book. The vivid portrait of a culture in crisis may well reshape your views and ultimately the policies and actions you advocate for. In light of the rise of Donald Trump, whose emotionally targeted rhetoric plays directly into the fears and world views of those in the rust belt and coal towns of America, perhaps we can no longer ignore the plight of this silent majority of Americans.

Books That Changed My Life – Raising Resilient Children

This post is part of an ongoing series on books that have greatly influenced my life.

I would say that it is no exaggeration that my children are the single most important thing in my life. Becoming a parent has profoundly changed my outlook on life in more ways than I can count. There is no more important job than raising my children to be successful, kind, compassionate members of society, and it is one both my wife and I take very seriously.

With that in mind, I make it a point to read books on various subjects around the general theme of parenting and healthy childhood development. And while my background in psychology means I could certainly understand the more theoretical and academic works, in my world of limited time I tend to heavily favor those with a decided practical slant. And I must say, that is one area where this post’s book shines.

Raising Resilient Children is a beautifully (yet concisely) worded series of chapters on how to impart your children with, well, resiliency. How does one define this? While the authors describe several areas, I’d like to focus mainly on one.

Resilient children are able to overcome problems and obstacles they face. As a parent it is natural to want to see your child sail through life with nary a bump, but the reality is that this is neither practical nor desirable. Even if through some extremely overzealous form of “helicopter parenting” one was able to see their child avoid any hint of difficulty, the result would be a person incapable of living in the real world. What we instead want is to give our children the tools with which they can navigate the inevitable bruises of life using problem solving and a healthy dose of hard work.

The authors describe a series of principles which will help teach children how best to weather the challenges of life. Each chapter first lays out challenges we face as a parent in adopting these practices, then offers specific guidelines on how to overcome them. For example, let’s look at one obstacle mentioned in the section on teaching our children to be empathic.

The authors note that many parents believe that showing empathy equates to showing weakness. That is, by listening to and validating the feelings of our children, we are somehow allowing them to get the better of us. They give several examples from their own experience, which is helpful in that it can help us identify with parents dealing with similar struggles. The authors go on to give helpful advice on how one can express empathy but still set firm limits with children.

The book also encourages a lot of self-reflection, that is that parents can and should routinely look at how they are behaving and what effect it has on their children. The authors often will ask some simple, yet profoundly perspective shifting questions. For example, in the same section discussed briefly above, they ask:

Am I saying or doing things in a way that would make my children the most receptive to listening to what I have to say and learning from me?

Would I want anyone to speak with me in the way I am speaking with my children?

What do my children think about the choices I make for them?

As parents we are human and subject to the same biases, mistakes, and occasional blow-ups as everyone else. We often feel pressure to show strength and authority, but neglect to see things from the perspective of the very people we are working so hard for: our children. This book helped me to recognize that being strong does not mean being a disciplinarian; rather, it means accepting our children for who they are, showing them our love through understanding and gentle guidance, and teaching them the means to be successful in whatever pursuits they desire.

Books That Changed My Life – The Feeling Good Handbook

This post is part of an ongoing series on books that have greatly influenced my life.

Today, I want to be open and honest about a fairly dark period in my life. It’s important that we reflect on these times, so that we may learn from them and make ourselves more resilient. Life has a way of throwing challenges at us when we least expect it, and while we cannot control what happens to us, we can control how we respond.

During my second and third years in college, I went through what in hindsight was a period of fairly deep clinical depression. I was often melancholy, unmotivated, and (despite being surrounded by a wonderful group of friends) lonely. The cult of macho surrounding my fraternity boy existence demanded strength, so I hid my feelings and pushed them aside. I felt lost, and wondered why everyone else seemed so happy and successful, when I doomed to a life of perpetual failure.

It took some time and a few fairly harsh experiences for me to realize that I could not solve this on my own. I felt ashamed, but knew that I must seek help if I was to break free. Thankfully, I found a wonderful psychologist who helped teach me why I felt the way I did, and importantly, how I could change the way I thought. The connection between thoughts and emotions, while not obvious to me at the time, sparked an intuitive reaction that motivated me to learn more. And the more I read, the more I understood how critical our patterns of thought were to our well being.

Which brings us to the book I’m writing about today, The Feeling Good Handbook by Dr. David Burns.

By the time I got to this book, I’d already read a number of others on the subject of Cognitive Behavioral therapy, such as Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism, so I was fairly well versed in the theory that our thoughts can have a pronounced effect on how we feel. But Burns’ book was by far the most well written and practical of the bunch, and the result was nothing short of amazing. The idea is that by simply applying some reflection and logic to our thoughts, we can generate dramatic changes in our mood and the way we perceive the world around us. Sound like snake oil? I thought so too, until I tried it.

It turns out that we humans tend to think in extremely illogical ways. For example, when we forget to respond to a client e-mail, we might think “I’m such an idiot, I should have responded to that! My boss is upset and I’ll be passed over for that promotion.” In that one stream of thought are three brilliant examples of what Burns calls cognitive distortions. These are ways that we warp our patterns of thought in ways that distort reality, often in ways that make things appear a lot worse than they really are.

  1. “I’m such an idiot, I should have responded to that!” – Ah, the should statement. What a useless word! All it does is create shame and regret. We cannot change what we have done, and hindsight is always perfect, so what good does it do to retroactively criticize ourselves?
  2. My boss is upset…” – So, you can now read minds? Perhaps your boss is upset, but you can’t know until you speak to them.
  3. “…I’ll be passed over for that promotion.” – Now you can predict the future? How do you know for sure that this one incident will knock you out of the competition?

I don’t think that it is possible to describe how powerful the impact of becoming conscious of, and later learning to direct, my thoughts was on my life. Besides affecting a profound change in my emotional well being, it greatly influenced my ultimate choice of college major (psychology), knowledge I (despite being in a totally unrelated field) still make daily use of.

Book #1 of 2013 – “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand

As part of my trying to diversify my writing on the blog, I thought I might start commenting on books that I read. So, without further ado, here’s the first! (Note: I’m actually on the fourth book of the year but am playing catch-up.)

Atlas Shrugged is, in my opinion, probably one of the most iconic (and controversial) books out there. From what I’ve seen, people read it and generally either consider it gospel or blasphemy. Many tout it as a warning of how interventionism and central planning will be the downfall of our modern economy, and perhaps society in general. I actually found myself in the middle of the road, albeit with a decided lean.

One the one hand, I see some logic in Rand’s obvious belief in free capitalism. Markets can only work when the values of goods and services are allowed to set themselves according to demand, not by the whims of planners. Governments bailing out failed businesses (“Too Big To Fail”?) at the expense of taxpayers and more successful ones seems to encourage mediocrity and rampant speculation. Look no further than our current situation, where those who patiently save and practice frugality are punished by record low interest rates, while the traders who throw piles of money at the market reap huge profits. And when they make poor choices (can anyone honestly say that investing in mortgages where the holders’ incomes weren’t even verified is a prudent decision?) and suffer, here comes the almighty Fed and the U.S. government to help them out. As a result we have a ballooning debt and a stagnant economy. I’m not an economist so I certainly can’t pretend to say all this is exactly what Rand foretold, but the similarities are striking.

Taking the opposite side, I believe firmly that what Rand describes is really more of an ideal than reality. If all corporations were honest, and all workers fairly treated (and by that I mean paid what their work is worth, and not made to work under dangerous conditions – at least not unwillingly), then sure, we could have a totally free market with no regulation. That not being the case, there has to be some allowance for governments or regulatory bodies to oversee things and ensure that people are not defrauded or placed in danger. Without unions, coal miners or high rise construction workers might still be working under horrific conditions (Lunch atop a Skyscraper anyone?). Having only read one of her books I can’t say for sure, but I have a suspicion Rand might well (at least partially) agree with me. In the famous “John Galt speech” (which yes, those of you who know what I mean, I read the whole thing), there’s this little tidbit:

The only proper purpose of government is to protect rights; a government’s only proper functions are: the police; the armed forces; and the courts, to settle disputes by objective law.

If there are laws prohibiting children under a certain age from working, or requiring that workers are protected with basic safety measures, and a corporation fails to follow those, then the government has every right to lay sanctions upon them. Or if a company turns out to have defrauded folks out of their money (though in many cases I’d argue that defrauding should be defined quite narrowly – if you foolishly invest your money without understanding where you’re putting it, shame on you), they should be made to give it back.

Naturally things like this are all part of a larger continuum, where conditions swing from one end to another in a cyclical fashion. Things go too far down one path, and we are forced to make hard course corrections. I think history has generally shown that human kind is fairly clueless at recognizing when our path has drifted to far to one side, and as a result we generally defer dealing with reality until it hits us squarely in the jaw. My psychology background has also taught me that there are a lot of reasons why we generally make poor decisions, most of which we are completely unaware of. Hopefully Rand’s tale turns out to be more of a cautionary one, rather than a stark look at the future of our society.