Distinguished Elder Award Acceptance Speech
Thank you all so much. And special thanks to my Div. 44 colleagues for selecting me for this honor, and to Kimberly for that beautiful introduction. Thank you.
It is indeed a profound honor — and privilege (and I use the word “privilege” very deliberately) — to be recognized by cherished colleagues and friends for doing work that has been so important to me personally, and especially at a time when that work feels so ephemeral and precarious.
Thank you for the affirmation, for the assurance that the work means something, that it makes a difference to people. I am so appreciative.
And thank you all for the work that you all do — for being the change you want to see in the world, for trying to bring respect and dignity to all people, for resisting hatred and fighting for justice — and for prioritizing gatherings like this, where we come together in all of our difference, to affirm one another, and to re-commit ourselves to the important and challenging work ahead.
And this is where my head is right now — on the challenges of the future. I struggled mightily with what to say to you tonight, and unfortunately (and this will come as no surprise to those of you who know me), I cannot do what I was asked to do. I wrote and discarded pages and pages of drafts of speeches that laid out my career trajectory — where I’ve been and what I’ve done — in various ways. But my head and my heart just aren’t there, I can’t focus on my past because I can’t stop worrying about our future — how we will move forward in this work we all do, in our profession (including our professional association, APA), in our communities and in our world.
So here’s where I am: I believe that we are facing obstacles and difficulties that are unprecedented for many of us (especially for those of us protected by white privilege) — not because the obstacles are new or egregious in ways we haven’t seen before, but because there is such unpredictability about how power will be wielded at the highest levels in our country and in the world, and what that will mean for the ways we currently think about social justice and enact social change. I think we have a very steep learning curve ahead. And I think that we, the people at this summit and our allies in this work, should be providing professional, community and national leadership in this social justice work.
And I think that leading and moving forward under this kind of uncertainty means that we will probably have to dig deep into ourselves for our very best efforts at modeling openness to learning from one another, perseverance that also involves a lot of flexibility, courage about taking risks, capacity to build new kinds of collectives and coalitions, extraordinary levels of creativity, and heightened attention to care — both of ourselves and of one another.
Now, I am an eternal optimist (as many of you know). And I do believe that we can survive — and perhaps even thrive — in continuing to do our multicultural work under very difficult circumstances. In this spirit, I offer a few small suggestions for bringing out our creative selves and caring for ourselves and one another as we move forward. You have given me a gift in honoring me, and I want to give you something in return.
So, here they are (and you will see that my humor, at least, has not deserted me in all this malaise):
Fassinger’s Formula for Putting the Fun Back in DysFUNctional
Not all of these ideas will work for everyone, but I hope that at least one thing on the list will be helpful to each of you. In no particular order, here are my suggestions to engage your creativity and care.
- Read some good science fiction. It is a good reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way. Human societies can be organized in innumerable ways, and the only limits are our own imaginations. If you caqn imagine it, you can build it.
- Read some good poetry. Notice how the words tumble over each other, and collide with one another, and morph into new forms and new uses. Fall in love with words all over again (you’ve probably forgotten that awesome feeling of how powerful words can be). Words can hurt or heal, build or destroy, shackle or liberate, and divert or galvanize entire communities. We must take control over the power to name things, and not let our issues and arguments become co-opted by the powerful words of others that are being used to derail our progress toward a socially just world. Example: the denial of women’s control over their own bodies and reproductive choices named as “right to life.”
- Hang out with children. They help you remember what it is like to experience wonder and curiosity, and they are also a powerful reminder of who will inherit this world we are trying to create. And they will keep you grounded. Who else would say to you, “Gramma Ru, why do you have that hair growing out of your chin — are you a boy?”
- Let yourself make mistakes. Even big, public ones. Apologize sincerely where you have hurt or offended, learn where you went wrong, move on, and make a different mistake next time.
- Find a secret hiding place that only YOU know about. It could be a corner in the local library or a bench in a park. Go there for solitude, reflection and recharging, and don’t tell anybody where you are.
- Adopt an animal or assist at a shelter. If you can’t be around live animals for some reason, you can adopt animals virtually, by groups trying to save endangered species (e.g., you can adopt one of the ponies on Chincoteague Island or a Siberian tiger at a zoo). Animals inhabit this planet with us and they cannot stop us from hurting and killing them and destroying their worlds – we must do something to help them.
- Take a free or low-cost arts class. It can be any kind of art form — painting, photography, dance, acting, playing a musical instrument. And don’t protest that you have no talent — the point is not to become an expert (although you might surprise yourself) but to stretch yourself and release your creativity. And who knows, you might discover a fabulous new hobby.
- Make friends with people who are completely unlike you, or people you think you don’t like. This is not as hard as it might seem — it could be your neighbors, or people you meet if you volunteer or run for elected office in your local community, or chat with at the farmer’s market, or co-lead a cub scout troop with, or hike or bike with, or meet at church or your kids’ school. You will grow emotionally and expand your empathy as you come to know and care about them (they might too, but that is not the point – you are the point).
- Practice “stealth care.” This is my term for small, quick, anonymous, secret acts you do to support others in your environment. I’ll give you an example. Most of us work in groups of other people in some way in our professional work (e.g., a department, a group practice, an organization). Stealth care is a great way to build morale and good feeling among the people in the group or unit. You get a box of cards (and maybe even some very small items as gifts at the dollar store), and you write “You are so appreciated. THANK YOU.” On the bottom, you write “Please pay it forward.” You randomly and secretly distribute these to people in the unit (maybe every couple of weeks). Do not confess to doing this and lie when you are asked. Because they don’t know where this kindness and appreciation is coming from, recipients will begin to make attributions about the kindness of others in the unit, and I promise you, they will pay if forward. Not at once, but over time, you will see positive feelings grow in the unit and relationships and morale will improve (and those of you in the room who have had me as a dean now know my big secret — but remember, what happens in Portland stays in Portland.).
- Let yourself fall apart sometimes. And let your trusted friends put you back together again. They will use your best parts in their reconstruction and will let the rest drift away – and you will be better and stronger than ever.
- Have your students do creative projects instead of term papers. We need to begin encouraging creativity in those who come after us, because they will need it to do their very best social change work, whether it is through research, teaching and training, psychotherapy, or direct advocacy. When you first assign creative projects, your students will think you are crazy, and then they will think this is going to be a breeze-through assignment, and then they will realize how challenging it is. When I was teaching the history of psychology for many years at the University of Maryland, I got some truly amazing work from my students: For example, one Japanese-American student created a history of psychology in origami; a female student (who loved cooking and was outraged by eugenics) created a “Better Homes and Families” eugenics cookbook that contained recipes like sterilized eggs; and two male students created and performed (with music and costumes) a rap song about the history of psychotherapy entitled “Shrink Rap.” I guarantee that you and your students will grow immeasurably if you try this approach. On course evaluations, students (to a person) would tell me that this the most valuable experience they had had — not just in my course, but in their entire graduate education.
- Organize a source of daily inspiration or intellectual challenge. It can be as passive as calendars or tea bags with sayings on them, or as active as engaging a friend to take turns with you starting each day with something to stretch or inspire. In one of my recent jobs, a friend and I took turns each morning sending a quotation from a Shakespeare play — the other person had to identify the source (without looking it up on Google.), and the quotes became more and more obscure over time, until we ended up collapsing in laughter (and moved on to Broadway musicals).
- Obtain mentors, all kinds. Those of you who are students or early career professionals and are starting to mourn the loss of your current mentors, perk up. You will find more mentors. We all need mentors all our professional lives and for different challenges we face at different times in our career trajectories. Don’t ignore the need for mentors — it is a critically important part of your self-care.
- Remember that you are a human being, not a human doing. You do not possess superhuman powers. You cannot be everything to everybody and you will surely burn out if you try. One way to protect yourself from the exhaustion of over-commitment is to find a “No-Buddy” (or, as one of our LIWP participants termed it, an “Accountabili-Buddy”). This is a person you consult before you ever agree to a request or opportunity — your No-Buddy will help you decide if this is something you really want to do, or can do right now, with the resources and obligations you have and the support you will be provided with if you agree to the activity.
- Get some deliberate leadership training. Even if you have had leadership positions and have been successful, your effectiveness will be greatly enhanced by increased awareness, knowledge and skill development, and at the very least, you will become more “planful” and organized about the ways you incorporate leadership opportunities into your own career. APA is one of the many places that offers leadership training for you to explore.
- Recognize that some problems/people/situations are beyond your skills, capacities, disposition, integrity or will to fix. You will know you are up against such a wall when you have tried unsuccessfully to do everything you can possibly imagine, and even your very talented mentors and friends are scratching their heads, not knowing quite how to help you. Have the courage to move away from impossible and destructive situations before they take a serious toll on your mental and physical health and crush your spirit. You need to save yourself for the long haul.
- Get out of your office once in a while. Get away for a few minutes from phone calls, emails, and real people waiting for your attention. Going outdoors for a few minutes is ideal, but even a brief escape to hide in the restroom can restore you. And last, but not least, and perhaps even most important of all:
- Keep a sense of humor. There is ridiculousness all around us (perhaps now more than ever) and you have to keep your perspective in order to keep going. Put some zany fun into your days, and surround yourself with funny friends. Laughter is good for you, and you will need all the laughter you can muster in the challenging work ahead.
I hope this list has been helpful. Again, I thank you for this honor and I look forward to continuing to work with you in the weeks and months ahead. And if you believe anything Kimberly Balsam said in her introduction of me, you will know that I am serious when say, Please do not hesitate to contact me if there is any way I can help and support you in the weeks and months ahead. I might not respond immediately, but I will respond and I will try my best to help you in your work.