OPINION: Lessons in Decency, Fathers to Children

BY: Wim Laven

As a scientist who researches peace and conflict, I find it important to systematically approach questions and see where the evidence leads me. It is a trait I developed from great mentorship, and a value that was instilled in me by my father from a very young age.

He was medical doctor, with a specialty in pediatrics, and later in his career he did forensic examinations for signs of abuse and evaluations for a child death review board. Veracity to the evidence was important because his determinations could dramatically impact child custody, criminal investigations, and prosecution.

I had a firsthand look at the toll this work took on him. If I could go back in time, I would share information I have learned about self-care, strategies for dealing stress and trauma, and probably have been a more sympathetic listener. Parents do a noble job in protecting the innocence of children, mine are no different.

Part of what a commitment to evidence-based decision making does is reinforce that when we know better, we will do better. Ignorance, for example, can be a challenge or obstacle to even the most righteous pursuits—we mean well—but sometimes we come up short because we did not know better. Luckily ignorance can in most cases be forgiven and is treatable.

Due diligence is one treatment for ignorance. A person who does not know something can look for answers or investigate; they can ask, “Have I taken reasonable steps?”

The question of decency is not as simple as it may appear. The regulation of moral behavior takes place in different parts of the brain.

Shame is found in activation of the left anterior insula and guilt is located within the left temporo-parietal junction. Evidence, in this regard, is clear in modern neurobiology, but also in thousands of years of recorded history documenting experiences with shame and guilt. No shame, no decency.

There are also thousands of years of atrocity, which is to say people do (on occasion) horrible things to one another and they have been for a long time.

Shame and guilt, for example, can help to promote the welfare of society; we know that others whose opinions matter to us would regard anti-social actions as repugnant and so most of us are deterred most of the time. These self-conscious emotions are frequently synonymous with our thinking of decency or its inverse. An indecent person, it is sometimes said: has no shame…

The question comes up because we see horrible events in the world, and some say there are more horrible things happening now than there used to be.

I have a Ph.D. in International Conflict Management, and I cannot keep up with 10 major conflicts in the world today: Gaza, Wider Middle East War, Sudan, Ukraine, Myanmar, Ethiopia, The Sahel, Haiti, Armenia-Azerbaijan, and U.S.-China. So I will echo the advice of Psychologists: It’s not your job to take on the world’s pain.

Having empathy is a decent thing. People feel bad about the suffering of others because it is natural to want to take it away from them. Feeling overwhelmed or powerless only increases the stress and anxiety.

It is easy to understand why a doctor who has spent his career trying to safeguard children would experience empathetic shock when confronting abuse.

My father comforted me during more than one crisis with words of wisdom attributed to Mother Teresa: We can do no great things, just small things with great love.

I can say with confidence that my father treated his patients with dignity. I know that he focused on their discomfort, illness, and disease with 100 percent of his energy. I know that sometimes this meant shutting off the outside world, forgetting for a minute what part of the world had bombs being dropped onto it, or what trouble his 15-year-old son might be getting into.

We make ourselves into a locus of control when we focus on things where we can make a difference. No matter the turbulence, we can always find at least one thing we can do; if nothing else, take a deep breath, and then another. Deep breathing exercises can lower blood pressure and reduce stress and anxiety.

We restore faith in humanity when we find helpers. Everywhere we look and see horror we also find people going to great lengths (sometimes with considerable sacrifice) to provide service. Most traditions have wisdom on this–here is one version:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

–Reinhold Niebuhr, Lutheran theologian (1892–1971)

Part of preserving our resilience is learning when and where to join with others to affect systemic atrocities so that we do not feel as though our efforts gained nothing, but rather that we know sometimes our collective decency can prevail–we can work with others to do great things with great love.


Niagara Falls Reporter.

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