Penn State’s Punishment: Denial, Identity and Self-Worth

July 24th, 2012

I’ve spent most of the afternoon trolling the seemingly endless blogs/websites regarding the Penn State scandal and the sanctions handed down from the NCAA. I noticed that a prevalent theme from the schools fans, students and alumni centers around the idea that punishments directed toward the football program would unfairly hurt people who had done nothing wrong (e.g., students, incoming players, new coaches, fans, etc.). Some went as so far to say that no punishment is the most acceptable course of action.

I added these thoughts to one site’s Comments thread:

There will always be collateral damage when punishments are handed down. There are always indirect victims. When people do terrible things, the families of the perpetrators suffer. That doesn’t mean you don’t act. There isn’t a viable way to deliver any sort of justice without damaging the current/future students. When you join a program – in this case, PSU – and identify with it (“We ARE…Penn State!”) then you immediately have to be part of the negative elements that may become associated with it. It’s not a one-way street. If you want to chant when your team wins or your coach gives you a library, you are – fair or not – part of the community that is now suffering the consequences of the leaders’ actions.

Because the site had a character limit I couldn’t expand on that, so I’ll do that here.

I once wrote about the intense connection people feel toward their favorite sports teams (read that here). As ridiculous as it is, people believe they are, each individually, a piece of a team’s identity. You’ll even hear people refer to themselves as part of organization (e.g., “WE need to get a new receiver if WE want to succeed this year”). Call it the 12th Man or simply a justification because they might pay to see the games or provide income to a school through tuition, but the reality is that those not on the field are just spectators who place an emotional investment in the outcome. Yet the identification remains. And, interestingly, those who are the most fervent in their support often pass on the opportunity to distance themselves in the face of damning evidence. Consider:

Penn State was just fined sixty million dollars, lost multiple scholarships and vacated 111 wins. They are ineligible to play in any postseason games for the next four years (for those who don’t like sports, you only need to know that this is very, very bad for Penn State football). And despite the fact that only a select few are questioning the culpability of Penn State’s leaders, including the deceased Joe Paterno, the fans say that the punishment is unfair, that it hurts others, that it’s wrong. Why? Not because of any conscious, rational argument or cogent take on justice, but because of identity. The mentality runs a dangerous course to self-loathing:

If Penn State is punished that strongly, then they must be incredibly guilty.
If they are incredibly guilty, then they are bad.
If I’m part of that community, then I’M bad.

One could consciously challenge this idea and save his/her psyche simply by noting that he/she is NOT actually part of that group, but that would devastate the entire identity package that was developed during all the decades of prosperity, football wins and celebrations (remember the chant: “WE are…Penn State!,” not “I’m a fan OF…Penn State”). No, this type of cognitive dissonance can only be resolved through the challenging of the initial statement:

If Penn State is punished that strongly, then the punishment is unfair toward the students, players and, most importantly, ME.

It’s no wonder that people take such a strong stance that many find irrational. It’s not simply about justice; at a deep, somewhat inaccessible level, it’s about self-worth. This is truly unfortunate, because the topic then suddenly becomes about the self, as opposed to those it should be about: the victims.

Impostor Syndrome and the “You’re Not Special” Speech: Something you Might Have Missed

June 20th, 2012

My apologies for having been off the grid for so long. When you’re not a trained or focused writer like me, the process of getting words on the screen is a very frenetic one. I can go weeks without a single idea and then, in the middle of a movie, think of a kernel of a story, and immediately disappear for three hours to hammer it out more fully. This isn’t conducive to healthy relationships and, since I’ve been making a very conscious and deliberate effort to value those close me, the writing has had to take a back seat for the time being. Call it wisdom, turning 40 or perhaps just being lazy about writing, but there it is.

That said, I did contribute a piece for the good people at ConstitutionalDaily.Com about Imposter Syndrome. I don’t think it was exactly what they had anticipated (I used their idea as a platform to discuss the now famous “You’re Not Special” speech), but I hope you enjoy it and, ideally, apply to your own life. Here is an excerpt (hit the link at the end to keep reading and watch the speech as well):

If you’re jaded and hateful (like me), you probably took some pleasure at him calling out the Me First generation for their entitlement and self-absorption. If you looked a bit more closely, though, you noted that he specifically points out that it is YOU who is not special, as opposed to WE. This allows for the millions of people who comprise his audience to step back and call bullshit for being unfairly cherry picked from an entire planet of narcissists (which is fair, as it’s remarkably easy to point your finger outward while not including yourself in the group). But if you looked even deeper, you recognized that this wasn’t just an opportunity to put the self-indulgent in their place. It was also a call to the self-denigrating to rise up and take a seat with the rest of the world.

Click here to finish the piece.

Is it Time to Stop the God Bashing in Alcoholics Anonymous? One in Recovery Responds

March 31st, 2012

For years, I was never a fan of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). I never knew much about it, other than my sister had tried it and said it sucked, and when you lose a sibling to addiction it’s remarkably easy to point the finger at anyone and anything that didn’t fix the problem. But as time went on and I got to know more people who were successful with AA, or at least could explain the basic tenets of the program to me, I realized it has a significant place in the treatment of addictions.

To date, however, there remains a massive contingency who are against AA, both addicts and teetotalers, as well as everyone in between. Most people point to the religious aspect of the program as a major deterrent. But this aversion is based on ignorance. Below I have a quote from a highly successful member of the program. I’ve highlighted some points I found particularly poignant. If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance abuse issue, take this person’s words to heart before dismissing the AA approach.

AA is more than seven decades old and has helped millions of alcoholics get sober. It has also spawned many other 12 step groups that have helped countless people overcome their particular addictions. The “proof is in the pudding,” so to speak. Yes, AA does have a high attrition rate, but it’s not for the people who need it, it’s for the people who want it. Most people who stay in AA for the long term — one day at a time — feel that it is a highly positive influence in their lives, perhaps the most positive influence.

The “God” thing is a sticking point for some people, but it’s really not a big deal when you go to the meetings or read the literature. You can think of God as anything you want. Some people think of it as “Group Of Drunks.” Some people have a traditional God that they grew up with. Some people have a tree. It doesn’t matter. We don’t care. All we care about is helping another alcoholic get sober. Because AA is not officially an “organization” and all groups are independent, some groups might “feel” more religious than others depending on where you live. If that bothers someone, then try another group. NA is also a very good option in some places if the recovering person doesn’t like what’s going on in AA. All meetings and each group have a slightly different “culture.”

AA is not religious at all. The word “God” is tossed around a lot because that’s what’s in The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and that’s the guideline that we use to run meetings and groups, but on the individual level it’s acceptable to believe anything you want. If the word “God” is what’s preventing someone from getting sober, then they don’t really want to get sober, simple as that. In our literature we say “we are willing to go to any lengths” to get sober. ANY LENGTHS. This means perhaps not liking one or more aspects of the program or the meetings, but putting that aside to help yourself continue living. Alcoholism is a progressive and fatal disease. The founders of AA determined that there’s a “spiritual solution” for it. That’s much better than taking a pill or having a medical procedure. And it works.

AA is a simple program for complicated people, is what we say, and that’s correct. Alcoholics — using and recovering alike — can make a big deal out of anything and resist help. That’s one of our commonalities, which makes it hard for some people to get sober, but once someone can put aside their ego and take the leap, there’s water in the pool, we promise. You can literally come into a meeting and say “Fuck your God, I hate him, I hate all of you, you suck, your AA sucks, this doesn’t work, I like to fuck ducks in the springtime,” and people will just nod their heads and tell you to keep coming back, and some people will give you their phone numbers and invite you to coffee. Where else can you do that and not get thrown out or put in a mental institution?

The most important person in any AA meeting is the newcomer. Newcomers are welcomed warmly. Usually, in an established group anywhere else the person who has been there longest is the most important person. Where else can you just show up and be not only welcomed, but regarded as the most important person in the room, and have everyone really mean it?

Nothing else but AA has been proven as a successful long term treatment for alcoholism.

You can learn more about AA here and, as always, share your agreement/disagreement in the Comments thread.