Getting It

The common belief about knowledge, at least in our culture, is that to claim knowledge about something we should be able to backup the claim with logic, sensory observation, personal experience, or a solid reason to trust the provider of the knowledge.

But sometimes we encounter ideas we simply know are true even though they don’t come through any of the accepted methods.  Occasionally an idea rings so true that it sets off a whole new vision and calls us to view ourselves, or an element of our lives, or the whole world, in a remarkably different way. Light breaks into the cave.  Suddenly we “get it.”

My earliest recollection of “getting it” is of my reaction to Feodor Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment.  The best I can express the experience in words is, I realized that compared to love, nothing else matters.

Later, the final lines of John Keats “Ode on a Grecian Urn” knocked me out cold.  “Beauty is truth, truth beauty–that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” When I came to, the world was a far richer place.

And William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” floored me, and convinced me that the “rough beast … slouching toward Bethlehem to be born,” was real and something I had better reckon with.

Then came Sören Kierkegaard.  I wish I could recall the passage, because its theme has haunted me ever since, with the knowledge that Christian churches can be the enemies of Christ.

While most evangelists labor to bring people to church or lead them to professions of faith, Kierkegaard challenged us to undertake a passionate, vigilant, and persistent search for truth.  I suspect he believed that if Christ, as he claimed, is the truth, to Christ is where honest truth seekers are bound, whether or not they set off in that direction.

Churches, like schools or mentors, can be valuable resources, or distractions, or worse.

During graduate school, I had the privilege of hanging out with novelist Kurt Vonnegut. At a party, a few of us gathered in the kitchen, which is often the setting for the most engaging conversations.  Mr. Vonnegut used the platform to argue that if one of us worked in a gas station and the price of a gallon was outrageous, we should realize our responsibility for charging that price, and not blame the station owner or anyone else. Because we had chosen to work there.

B. Traven, author of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, maintained that oppressed people should realize that they don’t need to remain oppressed. They could choose to die resisting.

What these bright fellows were getting at with their extreme examples is that each of us, not our nation, employer, family, or pastor holds the ultimately responsibility for our thoughts or actions.

As Kierkegaard would have us recognize, neither God nor our conscience, if we attend to it, condones the neglect of our capacity to discover the truth and act accordingly.

Which is good advice to remember especially now that a cadre of pastors have declared they mean to preach on politics.

Ken Kuhlken, www.kenkuhlken.net

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4 comments on “Getting It
  1. From Dr. Bob Weathers:

    Hi Ken,

    I’m delighted to review your latest entry regarding matters pertaining to, and inspired by, Soren Kierkegaard.

    I’d like to respond…

    Last night, I taught the fourth out of eight class sessions of my Ethics course for forensic psychologists-in-training at Argosy University. I have been attempting, now in my third, graduate-level course of Ethics, to invite the kind of deep-level self-reflection in my students that I experience you as modeling, both in this ongoing blog, and in your life. Only because I sense my class process parallels your own direction, I’d like to share its outline, fresh from last night’s 3-hour class:

    I started by acknowledging how that several students had, over the course of the previous week, completed essays regarding what are core ethical characteristics which typify the ideal forensic psychologist (one might substitute here, without being far off the mark, at least metaphorically: Christian).

    I then asked students to privately journal the first five such ethical characteristics which came to mind. Upon completing that task, we broke into dyad discussions of what they’d recorded. Finally, we came back to the entire class group, with me at the front whiteboard simply recording their responses.

    What came was not surprising, though still inspiring: from “integrity” to “passion” to “intrinsically motivated” to “non-judgmental” to “positive” to “empathic and understanding”…the list went on for 20-30 items without significant overlap content-wise. (What was, to me, most interesting was that I had asked the group to only share those items, when their turn came, which hadn’t already been mentioned. The truth is there was incredible universality in their responses; so those 20-30 distinct responses actually were indicative of huge overlap between students, suggesting a common, implicit moral code wound deeply into the human heart, whether in this case with aspiring psychologists, or in another context, with Christian believers.)

    Let me continue…

    I next wrote on the front board the words directly reflecting a chapter title in their required textbook for this course: “Don’t Do Dumb Stuff.”

    I asked my students for a definition of what might constitute “dumb stuff.” We came up with a common definition: where “dumb” = blatantly or obviously unethical behavior.

    My next question to them: how then do we cultivate truly “Ethical Intelligence,” or what I called, for the first time, “E.Q.”?

    To up the ante a bit, I reviewed our previous week’s conversations about forensic case vignettes which I’d supplied the class; addressing, among other issues confidentiality and legally mandated reporting (e.g., of abuse, suicidality, etc.).

    What became clear in the ensuing discussion (again, the previous week) was the inherent moral complexity of such common, real-life ethical dilemmas in the life of a psychologist.

    Next, I drew the class’ attention to this past week’s newspaper headlines, specifically, regarding the current statewide release of California prison inmates; including the wide-scale reunification of currently incarcerated parents with their families.

    One major “fly in the ointment,” however, is the hugely common practice of denying life-term prisoners their constitutional rights in obtaining parole hearings. (Los Angeles attorney, Michael Beckman, has come to previous Ethics classes of mine to describe this rarely discussed problem. After all: who cares about the civil rights of convicted murderers, rapists, arsonists, even after they have served their debt to society with “good behavior,” qualifying them for at least the due process of a parole board hearing.)

    How is this relevant to an Ethics course for forensic psychologists? The individuals responsible for evaluating potential parolees fairly and impartially are: forensic psychologists. Prior to only the past handful of years, again according to attorney Michael Beckman, it was by far the most common practice to simply diagnose life-termers as an ongoing menace to society, “at risk” for further crimes like murder and rape.

    What, I asked my students, would it require for this next generation of forensic psychologists to reverse this officially sanctioned (even viewed as “ethical”) practice, which in fact denies individual human beings (the “lowest of the low” in our society) their promised constitutional rights?

    In other words, if “dumb stuff” = flagrant violation of doing the right thing (ethics), could we find a much more egregious example of standardly practiced “dumb stuff” within our profession; one which turns its head the other way, blessed by the highers-up within the so-called criminal justice and “rehabilitation” system, to the very highest levels in our state capital, Sacramento?

    Now it’s easy to find fault all around us. My suggestion instead: let’s see if there’s an in-class experiment, maybe the first of many, with which we might truly “educate” a deeper morality, one which could in fact stand up to such abuses of justice as the previous, even within our hallowed profession of forensic psychology.

    May I pause here, only to see whether you, or other fellow bloggers on this site, might see the pertinence of what I’m sharing to Kierkegaard’s admonition to a rigorously self-reflective, even self-critical, foundation for not only personal, but also socially committed ethics. I believe he clarified that one, without the other, is quite simply a complete and utter contradiction. (Which brings to me that latter-day, 20th-century pastor of similar persuasion, and profound ethical commitment, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died having tried to reverse Naziism at its root.)

    Thanks, Ken…more to follow, in terms of last night’s in-class ethical experiment, if you’ve further interest; which of course, I hope you do!

    Best,

    Bob

  2. From Dr. Bob Weathers…

    Hi Again Dear Friend,

    Here’s Part II of my previous introduction of Kierkegaardian ethics (in the spirit, too, of Kurt Vonnegut’s admonition [cf. your initial blog in this series]):

    In a class of masters-level forensic psychology students, I asked them next to remember a time when they had done something that they’d never imagine doing; something that ran squarely against their previous ethical values.

    I required them to keep the actual content of that behavior completely to themselves.

    But I did ask for them first to journal privately, then share in dyads, their best recollection of what they had believed before, and what that ethical belief had felt like; as specifically as possible.

    Next: to remember what they felt like after violating or overriding that ethical value or belief; plus, what was the context in which they had behaved so differently…again, in as absolutely much detail as they could recall.

    Third question for their self-reflection and analysis: what might anyone have said to them that could possibly have made a difference in their choosing to go against their earlier, unquestioned values?

    And finally: what might have made a difference for them, in hindsight, by others’ responses to them after the crossing of ethical boundaries?

    Each individual spent close to 20 minutes journaling answers to the above questions, once having identified the selected instance of newly unethical behavior. They then shared, animatedly, with one another, in twosomes, for another 20 minutes. We finished by summarizing insights gained.

    I posed: how might this exercise inform our discussion of “Don’t Do Dumb Stuff”? And, how might this exercise inform our own building of core skills for being an ethical and effective forensic psychologist?

    Two key insights, content-wise, and maybe most importantly, one having more to do with the process (rather than content) of ethical decision-making arose organically out of the entire exercise:

    One student, Vanessa, said: “If only someone could have come to me with empathy, rather than judgment; whether before or after the ‘offense.'”

    Another student, Rosa, said: “I was given a second chance (to prove myself). I would never aim for less with any individual I might face in my line of work.”

    So: empathy…and grace.

    Most crucial: what became clear from this exercise is that simply reading “about” ethics—right and wrong, good and bad—doesn’t “touch” real-life moral dilemmas or quandaries. Anyone of us, given a certain context, can and will violate previously dearly held ethical principles.

    The instruction to “Don’t Do Dumb Stuff” misses the mark. We all “do dumb stuff.” What might, just might, make a difference is empathy before and/or after such moral “stumblings.” And the opportunity to be forgiven, and to seek restoration to community, once have “crossed the line” (even our own ethical line).

    And those latter two responses are, I believe, not learned by memorizing professional or personal ethical codes. Rather, in the spirit of Kierkegaard, they are written on the heart of the earnestly seeking and ego-surrendering individual faced with the utter boundaries of his/her own personal existence. Abraham faced with slaying his own son. Job on the edge of giving up on himself and his God. Jesus nailed to the cross for having violated Hebrew and Roman law; himself faced with abandonment from his friends and his Creator. No collective ethical code, under such extreme circumstance, will nearly suffice.

    And everyone of us, if we are “true human beings,” has faced—and will face again in our lifetimes—such extreme circumstance!

    P.S. Perhaps there might be a place for adding to Kierkegaard’s brilliant, and indelible, insights expressed in “Either/Or”; a companion volume, respectful to the core, called simply “Both/And”…

    Humbly submitted,

    Dr. Bob Weathers

  3. Request for editing, from Dr. Bob Weathers …

    Hi Ken,

    I just noticed the “smiley face” from my post two days ago. Could you please go in and correct that: it was intended to say, simply “8”…

    Thanks,

    Dr. Bob Weathers

    (By the way, I use that formal name, both signing in and signing off, upon my I.T. consultant’s advice, that it might link organically to my own website — drbobweathers.com — as well as to my newly established and “developing” blogs — at wordpress.com and blogspot.com, plus my Facebook and LinkedIn accounts. Modern communication!

    🙂

    (Yes, that IS a smiley face.)

    Signed,

    Plain Ol’ Bob

    • Ken Kuhlken says:

      Bob,

      I fixed the smiley face. To make certain, I wrote out the numbers.

      Your experiences with the class make me realize how important it is that we choose our beliefs rather than just assume somebody else’s code. If we choose, then we can extrapolate from that choice and apply it wherever an application is called for.

      I grew up and spent much of my adult life with a negative attitude toward authority. Only when I studied Tae Kwon Do, which holds to a rigorous standard about respect for those of higher rank, did I start to change. The reason was, I realized I didn’t have to practice Tae Kwon Do. It was my choice. And by making that choice, I was entering into a contract with the standards of the art. Before long, I became able to not only show respect but to feel a certain respect for even the less respect-worthy of my superiors in rank.

      A friend who was a lay sister with Mother Teresa’s order told of a similar revelation about the obedience the order requires.

      If we choose, our will can work with, rather than against, our growth toward whatever goal prompted our entry into that culture.

      Also, thanks for the insight about how personal ethics will become social ethics if they are thoughtfully applied.

      Ken