I received two graduate degrees in child clinical psychology from Penn State University. I worked there full-time for almost a decade, supervising all child and adolescent services provided to the community by the outpatient Psychological Clinic there. As a part-time faculty member, I continue to teach graduate student therapists in that Clinic how to assess and treat kids who face all kinds of life challenges, including child sexual abuse.
For nearly 30 years I’ve been proud to be learning and teaching others how to provide psychological care for our society’s most vulnerable children at this great institution. (And I’ve continued to apply that learning as the founding director of Midstep Centers for Child Development in State College for the past 15 years.)
My wife is a full-time staff member at Penn State in the College of Human Development. Our three oldest children are all currently undergraduates at Penn State, two of them in the Schreyer Honors College, one of them starting his career as an NCAA Division-I student-athlete on the Penn State basketball team.
We are… Penn State. And today we are broken-hearted.
Words are poor representations for the range and depth of feelings that have coursed through my veins this week. But I’ll try…
We’ve heard sordid details of how one man’s dream has turned into a community’s nightmare. We’ve heard how Jerry Sandusky, an assistant football coach at Penn State, used that fame to start a charitable organization dedicated to serving disadvantaged kids. The Second Mile has been known locally and nationally as an exemplary organization that has helped hundreds of thousands of troubled kids overcome life adversities through various mentorship, leadership, and summer camp programs.
But now we’ve heard that Mr. Sandusky may have used that fame to lure young boys into secret, abusive relationships. We’ve heard how some of the alleged abuse incidents were witnessed by or reported to Penn State football coaches and administrators. We’ve heard endless arguments and speculation about who knew what when, and who did or didn’t do enough to stop these alleged crimes against children.
President Graham Spanier, Vice-President Gary Shultz, Athletic Director Tim Curley, and Head Coach Joe Paterno, all highly-regarded Penn State leaders for decades, are suddenly gone. Years of virtuous deeds have been wiped out, at least for the time being, by some apparently incomprehensible lapses of perception, judgment and/or action.
We’ve seen and heard Penn State students protesting and rioting, crying and praying. We’ve seen and heard Penn State alumni share their angst and pride and shame and devotion to making things right. We’ve heard a wee bit from the outraged mothers of the boys who were allegedly abused – with certainly more to come from these victims who are now mostly grown men. We’ve seen and heard so much this week, yet we know so little.
In due time, the rest of the facts will come out. The errors will be accounted for, the crimes punished. Restitution will be sought, and perhaps, with God’s Grace, some reconciliation will occur. Yet nothing can undo what has been done, or what has been said or seen or heard.
We can’t go back, we can only go forward now. We can’t return to innocence any more than those boys could. And we can’t take back the untold harm to the victims who have been suffering in silence (or suffering while speaking and not being believed). But we can try to make amends, to make things better for kids yet to come. We can and must begin the healing process.
To do that, we must go beyond hearing and seeing, beyond accusing and conjecturing. We must learn from this. It will be the most important lesson that Penn State or any University could ever teach us. We ignore these lessons at our peril – and the peril of our children.
What lessons can we learn from this? Here are 7 Life Lessons that come readily to mind:
1. Humility. No one of us is bigger or better than the rest. None of us is above the law. Yet, each and every one of us is perfectly imperfect. We are divinely inspired, yet mortally flawed. We all make mistakes. Let us be careful about making judgments about others. Meanwhile, may we make decisions to protect and serve others, especially children, based on their best interests, not on our own ego or needs or aspirations.
2. Compassion. We all have and deserve human dignity. Before reacting rashly in any situation, let’s pause to ask “What Would Love Do?” When you stop to mindfully reflect and respond, rather than mindlessly react, you will almost always make the best decision. Listen to your gut. Lead with your heart…
3. Discernment. …and follow with your head. Humans have developed this amazing capacity (in the frontal lobes of the brain) for critical thinking and creative problem-solving. Once you’re centered on what your heart or moral compass tells you is right, double check with rational thinking about how best to apply your principles to the current situation.
When in doubt, seek the consultation and wisdom of others. But demand and expect honesty from yourself and your companions. To make the best decisions, you must allow everyone to disagree respectfully, to consider alternative perspectives, to weigh the pro’s and con’s of different ideas, without self-centered or defensive thinking getting in the way. Easier said than done, but it can be done with intention and practice.
4. Accountability. We all are accountable for our actions. Our actions have consequences – sometimes seen, sometimes unforeseen. We must do our best to hold our selves and others accountable, even and especially when it’s hard to do so.
Let me say something, having worked with hundreds of child abuse victims, perpetrators, and bystanders over the years. There is nothing more difficult for humans to face, to think about clearly, to discuss openly, than this topic. Yet there is nothing that could be more important to think about or to act on with a clear mind than this – protecting the well-being of innocent, defenseless children.
That is why it’s so important to really learn from this outrage that so many are feeling right now. We must look this human failing square in the eye and recognize – humans have sexual and aggressive impulses that sometimes go awry – that become dysregulated or uncontrolled – and may cause harm to other human beings, especially vulnerable ones such as children.
If we don’t ALL admit and recognize this fundamental reality exists, if we don’t have honest, constructive discussions about it that lead to courageous yet compassionate acts against it, then we will ALL suffer the consequences from history repeating itself.
5. Forgiveness. When mistakes, even horrible mistakes, occur, one of the biggest steps in the healing process is forgiveness. Whether at the center of Christian doctrine (“…forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…”), clinical experience with trauma survivors, or the latest research in the field of positive psychology, forgiveness has been shown to be a powerful source of empowerment and happiness. There is a time and place, of course. Still, considering forgiveness for yourself, for others who have wronged you, for others who have wronged others, will help set you free.
6. Acceptance. It’s important to recognize that in any situation there are always things that you can control and can’t control. You will be happier and more productive if you focus more of your energy on the things you can control, rather than what you can’t. The serenity prayer teaches us: “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.” Accept and let go of the things you can’t change. Accept and focus on the things you can do to make a difference.
Accept your responsibility to educate your children about respecting themselves and others, in body, mind, and spirit. Accept your responsibility to teach your children how to understand right from wrong, kind words and touches and actions from unkind or unacceptable ones. Accept your responsibility to teach your children how to trust others, but also trust their own gut feelings, and if something seems wrong, to always tell another trusted adult to get the help they need to be safe and secure and happy.
Accept the responsibility to tell other adults you see harming children to stop it, now. And accept the responsibility to take additional actions to protect that child, including notifying the appropriate authorities immediately. The appropriate authorities are child protective services (in Pennsylvania known as the office of Children and Youth Services or “CYS”, under the Department of Public Welfare) and the police.
Notifying these authorities does not mean someone is guilty of abusing a child. It simply allows an investigation to occur to see IF a child is being harmed or not and if that child needs any type of additional protective support or services, first and foremost.
Again, we must be realistic. Following through on your responsibility to report any suspicions of possible child abuse (for some professionals it’s a legal responsibility, for all of us it’s a moral responsibility), is easier said than done. People fear what the authorities will do to that kid, that adult, that family. Will reputations be ruined, will someone be unfairly judged or condemned, will kids be taken away from loved ones?
There are reasons why well-intentioned, good honest people fail to report suspicions of child abuse. It’s scary, and people aren’t sure what will happen. Plus, because the topic is so horrible to us, we often don’t believe our eyes or ears. We think it can’t be so, and we start to think it isn’t so. Not purposely or maliciously, but because it’s just so hard to believe.
We need to learn to accept that child abuse – physical or sexual – is real. It can and does happen. When we think it might be happening, we need to get this to the attention of the professionals who can make the best determination about what to do. Accept, too, your limitations in being able to prevent harm to any child, but don’t let that paralyze you from doing what you can. Accept that you and others may make mistakes. Child protection workers, police detectives, child psychologists, and judges all have limitations too. We are all people trying to do our best, yet never perfect.
7. Resilience. Remember that the human spirit is resilient. We are capable of adapting to adversity and overcoming obstacles. We can learn from painful experiences, even find the gift or blessing in them, and grow to become better persons. I see it every day in my work with children, adolescents, and families who are struggling with every conceivable life stressor. I never cease to be amazed by the miracle of the human will, and the ability of many traumatized children to find the good in themselves and others again, when we give them the loving support they need and deserve.
May we remind our selves of the strengths and resources each of us has – both within us and around us – so that we can keep on going. There is hope, always.
Life lessons? If we truly learn our lessons, here, we will act differently moving forward. I pray we will all learn, heal, and grow from this terrible human tragedy. I pray that we will act with courage on our convictions the next time around. And the next. And the next.
Beyond “We are… Penn State,” we are all human beings, each and every one precious and deserving of our ever-vigilant love, compassion, protection, and celebration.
Let’s do it. Let’s learn our lessons well. Now that would be something to be proud of.