by Jenifer Fox
Today, NBC aired a segment on the Today Show about how we can use strengths. This notion will change our schools if you will speak up.
Over the past several days, a plethora of theories has arisen about who is to blame for the tragedy at Virginia Tech. The college? The friends and teachers who didn’t heed to warning signs? The budget cuts in mental health care? Immigration laws? The perpetrator’s genetic make-up? Our nations’ gun laws? Exposure to violence on television and computers? Perhaps the searching out and assignment of blame is a first step in moving from ineffable shock to verbal comprehension. Blame, though, is a curious tool. We jump immediately to trying to discover who or what is to blame as though if we are able to pinpoint a cause, we will simplify the situation enough to look it squarely in the face and know what we are looking at. If only we can figure out the reason, we will prevent this from happening again. A great deal of airtime has been devoted to arguing one theory over another; everyone is an expert; everyone has a solution, “if only…”. All of these theories and arguments have elements of truth in them because life is layered, complex and complicated. There are not easy solutions or answers to the most important things happening in our society – how we raise our children, how we govern our land, how we care for people, how we interact. We cannot continue to examine the complexity of these issues only in the wake of tragedy. As a society, there needs to be ongoing societal commitment to discovering ways to refocus our national attention from blame to accepting responsibility. Whose fault is what happened at Virginia Tech? It is all of our fault. Society rises and falls on collective shoulders, not a single crisis plan, or a burgeoning mental health budget, or a gun control law, or a monitoring of violence on television. All of those things are but threads in a much larger societal cloth. It is time to step back and look at the cloth rather than arguing over the threads. The cloth is not the important ingredient in this example – it is the eyes, the lens, the perspective, and the paradigm we use when viewing it that will make all the difference.
On Tuesday, April 17th, Tiki Barber was scheduled to debut his first big story on the Today Show. It is about Marcus Buckingham and the Strengths Movement. In this story, there is a feature on the Purnell School, the school where I am the Head, a school that practices what Marcus preaches – “that building on human strengths is what creates lives worth living. The story was naturally bumped because of the Virginia Tech story. The story, as I recall in the filming, is a feel good story. I received many emails yesterday from people telling me they were sorry the story was lost because of the tragedy. I watched the television much of the day yesterday, and with every interview, every image of loss, confusion, shock and sadness, I was more and more convinced that the story of developing human strengths, especially in young people in our schools and in homes is so very much more than a feel good story; it is the before and after story of the Virginia Tech shooting; it is not a lost, bumped or replaced story; indeed, it is part of the school shooting story – it is the lens through which we should begin to view other people in order to lessen the odds of more school shootings. Developing strengths in schools is about developing the kinds of positive emotions that sustain people through conflict; development of strengths in children leads to better self image, better relationships, better working situations, and better lives for everyone. The place to begin this development is in our young people. Positive emotions and positive psychology are not “fluff” or “feel goods”. They are the developmental lens that will help to lessen – not prevent – but lessen the odds of more school shootings. Developing strengths in children is serious business. It is not about happiness – which can be classified as a mood. Developing strengths is about broadening a young person’s cognition. Research shows that negative emotions and focusing on the negative result in anxiety, depression and failure. It narrows a person’s ability to be attentive to a variety of things and causes people to narrowly and obsessively focus on a few things, missing the forest for the tress. Focusing on strengths broadens ones view, opens ones mind, and presents people with options.
The story of developing strengths in young people may be tomorrow’s story made ever more serious and important by the events of the past few days. Tomorrow’s story has shifted in my mind – from “feel good” to absolute necessity. In many ways, I sense the possibility of a national awakening. After 9-11, you could say that the country became cynical, afraid, and uncertain. What I witnessed was different. I saw a very sad and tragic event cause people to come together. It was the union of people’s strengths that led to a resilience that allowed our country to rebound. It was the piling up of one person’s strength on top of another’s that allowed us to form a fortress of national resilience. In the next few days, over the next few months, that is what will emerge from the tragedy on the Virginia Tech campus. People will join their strengths together in an effort to overcome the darkness and see the way past the tragedy. My ultimate hope is that this is not simply a means of crossing through darkness, but a new light on the future.