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Monday, June 21, 2010

The "Aha!" experience.

I once did therapy sessions and served as program director at the  Odyssey Harbor Ranch campus while I was in grad school studying Rehab Counseling Psychology. Odyssey Harbor was a residential treatment center for children and youth with multiple psychiatric and physical diagnoses.  I was responsible for the Bear's Den, a dorm for kids ages 6 to 10.
PH was one of the more interesting kids I treated. I had started a self-government in the Bears Den where the kids elected a dorm captain every week. It was a popular vote thing and you couldn't be on any kind of restriction to be dorm captain. The kids met on Fridays to determine consequences for some transgressions where that was appropriate. The dorm captain was the dorm's representative with me and he was the guy that got them special activities, privileges or treats. PH wanted to be dorm captain so badly that it hurt.

The kids didn't like him and he knew it. He complained to me in therapy one day, "I don't know why they don't like me," he shook his head in bewilderment. "I done beat up every kid in that dorm and still they won't pick me for dorm captain."

I was beginning to see a little distorted thinking going on. I tried to help him see that beating people up probably wasn't the best way to win a popular election, but the idea was totally outside his cultural paradigm. In PH's world, if you want to be the boss and be respected, you intimidate everyone else. Unfortunately for his popularity, the world we had constructed in the Bear's Den was ruled by law. It was a democracy and the citizens of that little world could exert power over their world with their secret ballot vote.  No matter how small they were, staff would protect their right to vote. No one could effectively control by bullying as PH had discovered.

That week PH was caught in the Bear's Den restroom doing some experimenting he shouldn't have been doing with another boy. Since it was on their turf, the kids voted to restrict both boys to campus for two weeks. I had to invoke a supreme court decision to prevent them from voting to take a more Mohammedan approach to punishment that involved amputation of offending parts. I explained that that according to our constitution, that punishment was not on the list of acceptable consequences. They relented at last (there was a lot of pent up anger at both boys because of their bullying).  They finally chose to issue both boys a one-and-one sentence that allowed for a pardon/parole the second week, but only if the dorm voted unanimously to let them off with 1 week time served. This was a very powerful teaching tool and often worked well, especially with kids who had any cognitive ability whatever. They were pretty fair about it since any one of them might face a jury of his peers at any time.

In two weeks the group was going to a baseball game and PH wanted desperately to go. He was an angel for that first week. He was helpful to the younger boys, respectful to staff and amazingly well-behaved. He told me in therapy that he was "trying real hard" to be good so the other boys would vote to give him that second week pardon. Fortunately for PH, the Bears Den boys had pretty short memories.

He came to me in therapy the next week almost giddy with excitement and it wasn't just over the upcoming baseball outing. The kids had not only voted him a pardon for the second week of his punishment so he could go to the game, but in the same session they also voted him Dorm Captain. The other boy had been awful that week and wound up serving the second week of his punishment and missing the ball game.

PH told me the whole story and then cocked his head as though a new thought had struck him. "You know," he said with the air of someone imparting a great truth, "If you are nice to people they like you!"

Following that revelation, PH's behavior improved so dramatically that he went home for good just 4 months later.

It was the most profound success I ever had doing cognitive behavioral therapy. 
Romans 8:28 promises that all things work together for good to them that love God.  I wonder if that's also true for those whom God loves, which is basically everybody.
I suspect that's true. No matter how we finally choose in the great "As for me and my house, we shall follow...."  decision, I think God gives us every opportunity to have that great "Aha" moment in our lives. I think everyone comes to it and either embraces the light or chooses the dark. George Lucas was on the right track with the cave scene in Star Wars. We face the dark and light throughout our lives, but in one moment of startling clarity, we all see two paths stretching before us.  There is a narrow, less well-trodden path uphill toward the light and a wide, easy glittering road sloping down toward a place deliberately kept obscured beyond broad twists and bends by those who keep the path well greased.
And at that moment we choose.
And at that moment we are forever changed. 
As Robert Frost so eloquently put it, "I chose the road less traveled and that has made all the difference."
Tom King

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