A year ago I stumbled across a study in my substance abuse prevention work. It was the adverse childhood experiences study. This study, in its simplest form, says the more trauma a young child experiences in their early years the more likely it is they will experience future mental, emotional and physical health challenges. Here's an awesome Ted Talk if you want to learn more about this connection between trauma and future health outcomes. (How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime)
Tonight, Oprah Winfrey will be on 60 minutes to discuss this connection. In advance of the story, Oprah says this about her own discovery of this connection between childhood adversity and future health:
"This story is so important to me and I believe to our culture that if I could dance on the tabletops right now to get people to pay attention to it, I would. It has definitively changed the way I see people in the world, and it has definitively changed the way I will now be operating my school in South Africa and going forward any philanthropic efforts that I'm engaged in," she said.
"What I recognize is is that a lot of NGOs, a lot of people working in philanthropic world, who are trying to help disadvantaged, challenged people from backgrounds that have been disenfranchised, are working on the wrong thing," Winfrey added.
While there have been plenty of job and training programs to help the disadvantaged, Winfrey said, "If you don't fix the hole in the soul, the thing that is where the wounds started, you're working at the wrong thing."
The shift in perspective comes down to what Winfrey calls a "life-changing question."
"See, we go through life and we see kids who are misbehaving. 'You juvenile delinquents,' we label them. And really the question that we should be asking is not 'what's wrong with that child' but 'what happened to that child?' And then having the resources to be able to address what happened to you. The most important question you can ask of anybody which is what I now say even for the Parkland [school] shooting – instead of what's the matter with that kid, I say what happened to that child?"
Intuitively, I've known this connection between trauma and poor health for almost 25 years. In the early 90s I entered into the lives of kids who'd experienced various forms of trauma. When I took a job as a counselor in a residential treatment center for at-risk kids, I thought I was entering into their lives to fix their whacked out behavior choices. In my mind, I was there to stop them from taking drugs, taking other people's belongings - and generally - to get them to stop treating everyone around them like crap.
I thought I was there to teach them, to bless them with the brilliant knowledge I held within me about having a perfectly put together life. Knowledge that would make them smart enough to make good choices instead of dumb ones. The most ridiculous part of this theory, I would soon discover, was how grossly I overestimated the perfectly put togetherness of my life.
When we grossly overestimate how well our own lives are put together, we can be grossly arrogant with our expectations of how other people should get theirs together.
One of the beautiful things about the program I worked in was when these young people made their whacked out choices, we talked about them. We started with the negative consequences of their choices and worked backwards to what on earth they were thinking and feeling when they did it. I'll save you about 13 years of stories and tell you more often than not we worked our way back to a kid who was hurting.
I'll never be able to shake the number of times we talked conversations back to kids who'd been neglected or abused, to kids who had parents in prison or parents they didn't even know. I found myself talking to kids who'd been suffering for years and were discovering for the very first time someone who was willingly taking the time to listen to their pain. Can you imagine what opens up when someone has held their pain in for 13 years and then suddenly stumbles into someone who says I want to hear about it? When they find someone willing to feel their pain with them. To believe it's real enough to share in it. For the first time they have a pain that isn't dismissed away as just another broken part of another screwed up kid.
When a kid starts talking about their hurting and another caring human being shares in it something powerful begins to happen. It always felt spiritual to me. But I'm telling you, I saw lives turn away from prison bound to dreams of hope and happiness in a single conversation. What I witnessed was young kids beginning to heal. I saw adults and kids around them begin to realize broken people don't need the brokenness in their lives sealed shut like leaky windows that let the cold of winter in. They need us to lovingly walk into that brokenness and listen and hug and I say I know you hurt.
Those conversations helped me realize how useless my self-perceived brilliance was and how powerful all the hugs were I'd received in my life.
When Oprah Winfrey says, "If you don't fix the hole in the soul, the thing that is where the wounds started, you're working at the wrong thing," boy does that hit home. It hits home to me, and my prayer is it's going to hit home to an entire country tonight.
So much of what we're doing to try to fix problems in this country is rooted in trying to fix people who don't need fixed. They need healed.
I was at a conference recently about the opiate overdose crisis. The Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Jerome Adams, said something that was profoundly simple, yet complicated beyond words. He said if we're ever going to get good at prevention, we're going to have to have a paradigm shift. That shift has to take our prevention efforts much closer to where people are hurting.
I walked away from there thinking he's right. But not just about preventing substance abuse. When you factor in the adverse childhood experiences study, his words could be used to talk about a paradigm shift to address all major health challenges in this country. Profoundly simple, right. Why so complicated?
Because we're good at developing programs and campaigns in this country and comparatively awful at searching for the holes in souls. Programs lean on brilliance like I once mistakenly thought I had. Holes in souls require relationships. Sometimes I fear we know that. We know if we discover someone hurting the only right answer is diving into someone's hurt with them. I often think we're far more willing to pay the high dollar price of programs to excuse ourselves from the sacrifice, the blood, sweat and tears required to take on someone else's pain.
I think we're also pretty quick to assume because we got through things in our lives everyone else should too. What that often discounts is the relationships we had by our side to "get through it." It wasn't until I had hurting young boys in my arms, sobbing away the pain of abandonment and neglect and worse, that I realized the army of love I'd always had at the back of my life. In those tears, I discovered how much love my family and teachers and coaches had poured into me in an effort to build a man who'd always be able to recover from hurting.
Resiliency is what helps us recover from hurting. But resiliency isn't about our ability to get tough, to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Resiliency is our capacity to draw up from the depths of us the love that's been poured into our lives. If love's never been poured, there is no resiliency.
To be fair to you and to us, I'm not sure everyone understands the level of hurting in this country. When we watch the news, when we look around us, it's easy to see the level of poor choices and destructive behaviors. What we don't see is the hurting that's buried hundreds of layers beneath those behaviors. It's much easier to report a mass shooting, to write someone off as deranged and leave it at that, than it is to dig beneath the surface and discover a lifetime of hurting.
Let me be clear. Even when we discover hurting in the aftermath of a heinous mass shooting, it doesn't excuse anything. It doesn't erase or sadly heal the pain now inherited by the victims. It remains tragic and sad. What it does do, though, is help point us in the direction of healing a problem and not fixing it.
I suppose it sounds like I'm ranting. Maybe. But in it I'm asking a favor. Please watch Oprah tonight. When someone like Oprah, a woman who's devoted much of her life to helping people, says I've had it all wrong in my approach to helping, I think it's worth at least watching.