On Hopelessness and Hope - A Conversation with Michael Penn, PhD
by Preeta Bansal, Richard Whittaker, Jul 7, 2018
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Around the age of 22, a near death experience transformed Doctor Michael Penn into a seeker. Following this profound encounter with his own mortality, he began an extensive study of sacred texts and the works of the founders of the world’s religions.
Today, Professor Penn is a Clinical Psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Franklin & Marshall College. His research interests and publications include works in the pathogenesis of hope and hopelessness, the interpenetration of psychology and philosophy, the relationship between culture and psychopathology, the epidemiology of gender-based violence, and human dignity and human rights. He teaches a course called, The Nature of Hope, which explores the biological, psychological, philosophical, and spiritual dimensions of hope. Many of his students maintain that in knowing Professor Penn, one gains not only intellectual knowledge, but also priceless wisdom, and access to a variety of powerful stories.
Born in North Carolina and raised in Brooklyn, Professor Penn and his family began life in the South, where they lived inside an old school bus that had been abandoned on his grandmother’s property.
Host: Preeta Bansal
Moderator: Richard Whittaker
Richard: Dr. Penn. It’s an honor to be talking with you today. I wonder if we could begin with you telling us a little about your childhood life in North Carolina.
Michael: Sure. Let me thank you, first of all, Richard, and those who are also listening. I'm very grateful for this chance to share a few thoughts. So, yes, I was born in Winston - Salem, North Carolina. We lived on some property that had been given to my grandmother by her mother who had been a slave. I had a chance to meet her when she was in the late evening of her life. But the land upon which we lived was not fertile, so we could not grow anything, and we did not have the kind of employment that would enable us to make for ourselves a life. So we were eking out an existence.
Then, one day, through our great fortune, a school bus crashed on our property. My mother said to my uncles, “Remove the seats and we’ll make that our home.” So, my mother was wise enough to have extended the reach of our house beyond my grandmother’s house, so we could live as a family together.
My dad was a Native American, a Cherokee, and my mother was an African American. Then, after three or four years of living in this house, a city inspector came by and said, “This is not fit for human habitation, and you’ll have to move immediately.” Since we could not move back into my grandmother’s house, my mother decided that we were to move to Brooklyn. She gathered what resources we had and, after we paid for our tickets, we left with about four dollars and some chicken sandwiches that my grandmother had made. We arrived in New York and started our lives there. I was around four years old.
Richard: So, your family had a very direct connection with slavery.
Michael: Yes. You know, when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, all of the slaves didn’t immediately liberate themselves, because they had nowhere to go. Many of them remained, essentially, as indentured servants for decades after the end of slavery, and my great-great-grandmother was among those. In fact, one of the most remarkable early experiences of my life was encountering her. It was very powerful in shaping my thinking.
Richard: She was able to share some of her stories, I take it?
Michael: Right. In those early days everybody was interested in the question, how did the slaves survive? And my great-grandmother used to recite an extraordinary poem that used to be sung in the church she attended. The poem goes, “A charge to keep I have, a God to glorify, who gave his love, my soul to save, and fit it for the sky. To serve the present age, my calling to fulfill, O, may these all my powers engage, to do my Master’s will.”
I guess the idea of that poem was that nothing could prevent her from achieving her destiny on Earth; whatever might befall her, she had to somehow find how she could pluck the fruit of life while still here. And she had every confidence that if she conducted herself with the highest degree of dignity possible, no matter what happened to her, she would, in fact, harvest the fruit of this life on Earth. I was just so impressed and so moved by encountering somebody with such a philosophy. She was a philosopher, even though she was a former slave.
Richard: That’s an extraordinary story, and what an extraordinary gift to receive. Now I’m wondering if you received anything of Native American wisdom through your father.
Michael: I think that from my father, I took three observations that have profoundly influenced my life. First of all, I should say that Native Americans were very circumspect in their speech. They thought that excess of speech was unwise, and so my dad was predominantly quiet and circumspect, and profoundly reflective. He rarely spoke, but when he spoke, the things he said, and the ways that he said them, reverberated in me. So, I developed a great admiration and respect for him.
Richard: I've been really struck by the relationship Native Americans often have with speech, the deep sense that spoken words have an effect in the world, and so they have to be chosen carefully.
Michael: Absolutely. Absolutely. In fact, one of my very favorite quotations comes from the Baha’i writings. It says, “For every land, we have prescribed a portion. For every occasion, an allotted share. For every pronouncement, an appointed time, and for every situation, an apt remark.”
The Native Americans really took very seriously this idea, that to speak into the world is to transform the world, either for good or for ill. So, whatever words we utter, we should consider them carefully. We should deliver them to the best of our ability, always with the desire to manifest the Great Spirit in the world. This attribute, my dad had to a great extent, and I admired him greatly for it.
Richard: That's wonderfully put, and an understanding we would do well to absorb. Now I understand that when you were in Brooklyn, an eighth-grade teacher was an important figure in your life. Could you say something about that?
Michael: Oh, my. That’s so wonderful, yes. Mrs. Maria Paul. One day she said to me and my friend, Michael Bivens, “Come to my office at three o’clock, and don’t be late!”
So Michael and I arrived and, when we came into the office, she asked us if we knew what the word “detrimental” meant.
We said, “No, Mrs. Paul.”
She told us what detrimental meant. Then she told us about 20 other words and said, “Remember those words and come back tomorrow at three o’clock, and don’t be late.”
She did this for an entire year. She taught us a sea of vocabulary words. Then at the end of the year, she asked us, “How would you like to go to boarding school?”
We said, “We don’t know what boarding school is, but it sounds wonderful. So, if you recommend it, we will go.”
She says, “I’ve arranged it and I want you to get permission from your parents. You’re going to be 'Better Chance' students. You’re getting a scholarship to study at a boarding school in New England.”
So, my friend Michael Bivens went to Connecticut. I went to Massachusetts. We started a whole new life of learning because of this extraordinary teacher, Mrs. Maria Paul.
Richard: That sounds like good fortune! What did you absorb in the boarding school?
Michael: It’s really interesting, because when I went, I didn’t know the culture of boarding school. Right? I went there as a relatively poor, African American boy coming from Brooklyn - from Bedford Stuyvesant. Mrs. Paul, my teacher, was one of the few white people I knew. I never went very far from my house. So, when I arrived at boarding school, I didn’t know much about middle-class American culture.
I arrived at the boarding school wearing a white polyester suit—nobody shows up at boarding school with a white suit! I mean, I was just completely out of place. I wanted very much to be accepted by the people in the boarding school, but I didn’t know how to make myself the kind of person they would think worthy of their respect. So, I had a really rough time, although I learned a lot. And I developed a lot there.
Richard: Did you arrive for eighth-grade?
Michael: I arrived there for the ninth-grade which, at that time, was the first year of high school.
Richard: And you were completely alone, not knowing how to fit in. That must have been extremely difficult, as you say.
Michael: It was extremely difficult. It was humiliating, in fact. I was so ashamed because I couldn’t tell my classmates very much about myself. They’d all come from backgrounds where their fathers and mothers were doctors and lawyers. They had all kinds of resources I simply didn’t have. I didn’t want to tell them about my situation, because I was simply ashamed of it. So, I went into a period of hiding, really. I’d just do my work and carry out my life in the most inconspicuous way. I don’t think they were known to me, and I don’t think I was known to them. So it was a strange period.
Richard: How did you get through it? Was there some point at which you began to figure out how to cope?
Michael: To be quite honest with you, I’d hide the truth about my background or I’d give such little information that actually, I was an enigma. So, my way of coping wasn’t something I was proud of. In fact, I was ashamed both of my background and the way I was handling it. And all through high school, it was like a dark shadow had started to grow over my life.
My parents didn’t know, really, what I was going through—neither the people back home in Brooklyn, nor the people at boarding school. But somehow, because I've always been somewhat philosophical, I had the intuition, that this phase would pass from my life, and that I would somehow find a way out of it.
Richard: It sounds like your way of coping would be understandable. I’m sure there’s a lot to talk about there. But I take it that you went from boarding school into university. How did that all take place?
Michael: Right. Immediately after boarding school, because I had no money and really no idea of even how to apply to college, I went into the Navy. I became a Navigations Petty Officer and went on submarines. After three years, my commander, a man who was to have a tremendous influence on my life, said, “I think you should go to university. I think you could be an outstanding student and have the capacity to do something.”
Because I really respected and admired him, I said, “Commander Kessler, I will indeed, immediately upon my discharge.” I applied to Brandeis University and was accepted and began my studies there.
Richard: So another important figure came into your life there. Now what led up to your near-death experience? Would you talk about that?
Michael: Sure. When I was at Brandeis, I took a job as a janitor in a synagogue in Newton, Massachusetts. I lived there and worked there week after week. I really enjoyed working there. On the second floor of the synagogue, there was a library. I’d go to this library every evening, and study. I would read all through the night.
One night, after many, many months, I had the very strong sense that I was dying of loneliness. I'm not speaking metaphorically. I'm saying that I did not think I could make it through the night. It was a very strange experience suffering from loneliness with such intensity I didn’t think I could go on.
Well, the very next morning, somebody knocked on my door - and nobody came to the synagogue unless they were coming to a meeting. When I opened the door, a young woman was there. Her name was Katinka Van Lamsweerde. She said, “Somebody told me about you several weeks ago, and last night, I had a strong feeling that I should come and meet you.”
I said, “Come in, Katinka. Let’s have some tea together.” So, we were having tea. It was the strangest thing, because immediately, when I saw her, my heart felt a deep admiration and love for her. I said to her out loud, after knowing her for only about five minutes, “I love you, Katinka,”
And she said, “I love you, too. We should go to France and meet my parents.”
It was very strange. One day, I'm dying of loneliness, and the very next morning, I meet this woman who said, “You should go to France and meet my parents.”
Her dad was an artist, a wonderful sculptor. His name was Eugene Van Lamsweerde. If you go to any of the big cities of Europe, you will see his art in the middle of the great squares.
Richard: Well, that’s an extraordinary story, and it’s painful listening to your story about the depth of your loneliness.
Michael: I didn’t think my heart could take a lack of companionship for much longer. I felt like I needed another human being in my life. I worked in the synagogue—pretty much, intensely—until I went to class. Then I’d be in class. Then I’d to go back to the synagogue to finish my cleaning. By that time, the night would come.
So, I had no time to meet people. And the people who came, because I was the janitor, didn’t think they should spend much time speaking with me. They were wonderful people, but only thought of me as somebody who should set-up chairs or clean up, that kind of thing.
Richard: Right. I'm touched by this story.
Michael: So, I went to meet Katinka’s family. They were Dutch and lived in an 11th-century monastery converted to their home. He had his art studio there. Everything in the place was a work of art. And they had horses. Her brother was a cellist. It was as though I’d stepped into a kind of paradise. This was the first family I’d met that I felt was completely free of racial prejudice.
It was so startling to encounter a family that did not have the slightest trace of prejudice. I felt like I’d entered another universe. He said, “You and Katinka should make a trip to West Africa. I think you will discover some things about yourself that will help you along in your life.” So, sure enough, we went…
Richard: Wow. Do you have a clue as to what was behind his intuition that West Africa was a place for you to go?
Michael: I don’t know. I mean, when you encounter a real artist, you’re encountering something of a mystic. I think his intuitions were so powerful he just suggested that this might be. And immediately, his daughter, Katinka, said, “Absolutely. We must go. Dad, can you make arrangements for us?”
Richard: What a story!
Michael: So, we left France and arrived in Mali. In Europe, "van" denotes a family of noble lineage. This family had wealth and connections. So, when we were traveling in Africa, we’d have just extraordinary experiences. One of them, was when we’d gone to a village, they prepared a meal for us. But the meal was made out of an unhealthy animal that had been killed the day before. I could smell it. But this was the time of drought in Mali. Many people were dying, really, of hunger. So we said, “We should eat just a little bit.”
I went to take a little portion of food, which was okra and millet and some of this meat, and when I touched it, I actually felt a kind of an electricity go up my arm. It was as though it were telling me, “Don’t.”
Richard: Oh, my gosh.
Michael: But because I didn’t want to be discourteous, I put a bit in my mouth and swallowed it. It felt a little uncomfortable in my stomach, but not so bad as to cause me to think, “I'm going to be very sick.”
Well, when an animal has the early signs of rigor mortis, they develop a fluid under the skin. It’s what makes an animal look bloated. On the second bite, I could smell this smell as I swallowed. I could feel it in my throat and in my stomach. It was getting hot. I knew I was going to be very sick. And indeed, for about six days, I was unable to leave the hut they’d put us in.
Fortunately, a traditional healer was passing through the village and said, “I understand there’s an American here and that he’s very sick. I’d like to see him.”
I only remember vaguely as being very big, a very tall person. He said I should lay my head on his lap. And I laid my head upon his lap. Just very gently, he would be touching my hair. He told me I was very sick, but that he was very sure I was going to have a full recovery, that I mustn’t worry at all; that he was there to take care of me. And he started to feed me sugar water with a little spoon.
It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. You know, to have your head on the lap of someone when you’re so sick, and they’re speaking to you gently, and feeding you sugar water.
It was almost as though I was a child again being nurtured for another life, another phase of my life. Sure enough, I survived. But I'm talking too much. You should say something.
Richard: That’s extraordinary, these interventions of saving coincidence. These must have been formative experiences, and I wanted to learn a little about your relationship with the Baha’I faith. Is that an important relationship?
Michael: Yes. I became a member of the Baha’i faith. So, I’d been at Brandeis for two years. Then I had a very strong sense that I should move to Pennsylvania. So, I left Brandeis and went to Philadelphia, where the University of Pennsylvania is. I went to the admissions office and said, “I’d like to transfer to the University of Pennsylvania.” They told me the transfer period was over and I was too late. But that just didn’t strike me as entirely correct and I went to the admissions office and applied. About three weeks later, I got a letter saying that I’d been invited to join the class of 1986.
So, I at the University of Pennsylvania I studied psychology, history, and religion. Because of the experiences that I’d had, including the near-death experience, I’d developed an intense interest in spiritual matters. So, I started to read very intensely, the writings of the people of Islam, the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, the Holy Books of the Bible. I read about the life and teachings of the Buddha—and because I’d lived in a synagogue, I’d already read the Jewish prophets.
I was enchanted by the founders of the world’s great religions. I said to one of my professors, Steven R. Dunning—he was a great Kierkegaard scholar—I said, “Whenever I read of the life of the Buddha, I’m reminded of the life of the Christ—and whenever I read of the life of the Christ, I’m reminded of the life of Krishna; when I read of the life Krishna, it causes me to think of the profound wisdom of Lao-Tzu.
And he said, “Oh, you’ve read these great thinkers superficially. You should read them more deeply and you’ll see the grave differences between them.”
That threw me into a kind of an existential crisis, because I thought there was a unity in the essential teachings of these great masters. In this context, I encountered the Baha’is.
The Baha’is have a notion of progressive revelation, the idea that about once every 1,000 years, the great Creator of the Universe sends a Wise One to edify the souls of human beings, and to usher forth a new civilization.
That civilization lasts for about 1,000 years and then has to be renewed. So, another Great One appears and testifies to the truth of the One who preceded him, but also foretells the One who will come after him. And this great line of prophets, this great line of messengers, is what the Baha’is regard as religion. But there’s really only one religion ever unfolding to humanity. I was enchanted by that idea and started to study it and become a Baha’i.
Richard: It sounds like it corresponds to your intuition that the founders of the different religions have some profound relationship with each other.
Michael: Yes, exactly right. Although the social teachings differ from age to age because each of these Holy Ones speaks to a particular people at a particular time in history. The spiritual teachings are universal, and the spiritual teachings are reiterated and renewed. So, you’ll find that the fundamental spiritual teachings in all the world’s great sacred traditions are essentially the same, though the social teachings differ from age to age.
Richard: I’d love to hear more about the things you’ve already shared, but I want to jump forward again. At the University of Pennsylvania, you studied psychology, history, and religion and ended up getting a doctorate in psychology. Would you say something about that journey?
Michael: Right. I’d been studying at the University of Pennsylvania with a great scientist, Martin E.P. Seligman. He was an experimental psychopathologist. Using animals in a laboratory, they try to create conditions that mimic the development of diseases in human beings, in this case, mental diseases.
I was fascinated by the attempt to specify the condition that would lead to, for example, depression. So, after spending some time studying his work, I went on to Temple University to study with one of his very best students, Lauren Alloy, who was also an experimental psychopathologist.
Studying in the laboratory felt a bit confining. I also wanted to bring in my interest in philosophy and the world’s religions, so I started to study trauma more broadly, outside of the laboratory. The first studies I did, involved looking at the conditions under which many of the women of the world were having their capacities destroyed by various forms of violence—cultural violence, interpersonal violence, state sponsored violence, so on. So, I did a study in the epidemiology of violence against women and girls, and the impact of that violence on the development of the human spirit, the human mind.
Richard: Was this the focus of your work that led to the doctorate?
Michael: Right. My doctorate was on the pathogenesis of hope and hopelessness. One of the things we’d been discovering about trauma in both animals and humans is that when animals and humans are exposed to uncontrollable, adverse events, it induces a state of hopelessness and helplessness. With this particular condition it’s very, very difficult to recover without the help of some outside intervention.
Richard: So you came through university on the experimental side of psychology, but then you got into the clinical side of it, and how did that take place?
Michael: Right. You may know that clinical psychologists are trained as researchers, and many of us spend a lot of time in labs. But we’re also trained as practitioners. So, although I was being trained in experimental psychopathology, I was also seeing patients or clients in a hospital and a clinic, and many of my clients were women. So, this is what caused me to become particularly interested in the impact of violence against women and girls—on their well-being, their development and also on the development of their children and the well-being of the family, more broadly.
Richard: I have a sense that some people are so traumatized they can’t even be open to a vision of hope. How to get past a kind of fixed hopelessness?
Michael: Yes. I think this is the power of a great clinician, that is, to re-awaken the power to imagine. One of the things that trauma does is that it smothers, to a significant degree, the power of imagination - and the power of imagination is absolutely critical in order to envision a life that’s different from the life that one is living. So many people who suffer from trauma, have their vision of possibilities greatly diminished by their experiences with trauma. They lose confidence, for example, in their own abilities to change and to grow—and sometimes even to survive.
So, clinicians who are really good have this capacity to re-awaken a sense of vision, a sense of imagined possibilities, in people who are traumatized so they can begin to build a new life if, in fact, they’re out of the situation that’s causing them trauma.
Richard: So really good clinicians have a gift, like an art, that can help bring a sense of possibility to birth in a person who has no hope. That’s something that you can’t exactly spell out.
Michael: I completely agree. In my understanding, there have always been two traditions of learning in the world—what I call the academic-scholastic tradition, which has to do with discovering the laws and principles that govern the operation of nature. Then there’s the wisdom and light tradition, which has got to do with understanding the laws and principles that govern the development of the human spirit, the development of the consciousness of the self; of the refinement of wisdom and the ability to help a life go forward, in spite of the stress and the difficulties that every life must endure. I think that great clinicians have to combine both the academic-scholastic tradition of learning with the wisdom and light in the tradition of learning, if they’re going to be any good.
Richard: Yes. I noticed that in 2003 you published a paper entitled, Mind, Medicine, and Metaphysics. In my own study of clinical psychology, except for Jung and one or two others, I didn't find any attention being given to, let’s say, the higher possibilities of a human being. So in your title, the word “metaphysics” really stood out to me. Would you talk a little bit about that?
Michael: Super, yes. Thank you for bringing that up. What I tried to do in that paper was to give a rational account for what might be meant by the human spirit. I tried to invite psychologists and psychiatrists to bring deeper reflections on the human spirit back into the practice or discipline. Psychology certainly has to protect itself from any kind of dogmatic superstition, but it could also learn a great deal from reflecting with the great philosophers and thinkers who have described the nature of the human spirit, the needs of the human spirit, and who have described the longings and potentialities of the human spirit. I tried, in that paper, to give a reasonable explanation of what the human spirit might be. I also tried to invite psychologists and psychiatrists to take it much more seriously in their research and clinical work, and in their discourse with humanity about what human beings are.
Richard: What kind of feedback did you get from that article?
Michael: Well, as you would imagine, the feedback was bifurcated. I got lots of messages from a wide-range of clinicians all over the world. Some said, “This is going to be groundbreaking. It’s really exciting.” On the other hand, there was the view that, “No. Psychology has liberated itself from this. It shouldn’t hitch its wagon to any ancient philosophy or any system of thought that’s not grounded in empirical research."
A kind of a dogmatic materialism has been eating away at psychology from its very early days, and we haven’t been able to shake off the lure of materialism. So the response was mixed.
Richard: I also found a presentation you made called, The Nature of Mind, A Baha’i Inspired Perspective. You quote Bertrand Russell, for his reductive, materialist vision. Did you find other philosophers representing a broader, deeper dimension of the human spirit?
Michael: There were lots of them. Probably the greatest was the great philosopher Karl Jaspers. I love his work. He lived at the time of Nazi Germany and was a psychiatrist. Many of his colleagues turned to Nazism. He wanted to know how someone with a well-trained mind could give himself or herself to an ideology so squalid and so empty. So, he began to really study history and discovered a period that he called the “Axial Age.” In the Axial Age, humanity, as a species, acquired a new mind, essentially because there appeared in different parts of the world, philosophers articulating a philosophy of transcendence.
There was Confucius and Lao Tzu in China, the Buddha in India, the prophets of Israel and Mesopotamia. There was Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato in Greece—and Zoroaster in Persia. These philosophers all lived during a 300-year period. Through their influence, they transformed human thinking. And because the mind is the reservoir from which civilization flows, these great thinkers gave birth to new forms of civilization, new forms of relationship, new forms of governance, new forms of science, art and architecture. And Karl Jaspers plumbed these great thinkers to great advantage.
Richard: You used this phrase, the "Axial Age," and I'm familiar with it as applying to a period 2500 years ago. But I gather you believe the term is also appropriate for today. Is that true?
Michael: That’s exactly right. A dear former student, Sophie Wu, and I are writing a book that describes the period of history we’re living in now as a kind of a Second Axial Age. A world is dying and a new world is struggling to be born, and this new world that’s struggling to be born, is essentially grounded in a recognition of the interdependence of all humankind. They see that all civilized life on the Earth now has to be organized around this fundamental, spiritual, moral, and practical truth, the truth that we constitute one human family. Systems of governance, our system of economics, has to reflect this essential truth, and we’re arguing that at the foundation of this truth is the life and development of the human spirit.
So, we’ve returned to this discourse on the human spirit because we think that humanity has to develop a kind of consciousness of the human spirit, and place it as our highest value. The development of the human spirit, its protection and well-being, has to become the ground of our effort to promote human rights, to promote human dignity, to promote civil rights and to promote human solidarity.
Richard: That’s a tremendously hopeful vision and I'm sure we all look forward to your and Sophie’s book. What are the things that worry you about this moment in time?
Michael: The really crucial need facing humanity is to find a unifying vision of the future of society. There’s a sense that history, thus far, has recorded, principally, the experience of tribes, and cultures, and classes in nations. But with the physical unification of the planet in the last century, an increasing acknowledgment of the interdependence of all on the Earth, has begun to unfold.
So, the history of humanity as one people is now beginning. So, endowed with all the wealth of the genetic and cultural diversity that’s evolved through past ages, the Earth’s inhabitants are now challenged to draw on our collected inheritance and take up in a conscious and systemic way, the responsibility for the design of our future. This responsibility is one that can no longer be avoided.
We’re seeing revolutionary changes taking place in every sphere of life, and essentially, the interaction of two fundamental processes. One is essentially destructive, because old systems, old ways of thought, are proving their impotence and they’re collapsing. At the same time, new ways of seeing are appearing and new systems of thought. These new perspectives of where we could be or go, are now in a kind of a gigantic contest with these old modes of thinking.
So, we have to support one another, encourage one another, and build a system that honors the dignity of all people. I think the real challenge is to keep faith with the truth that’s humanity’s future, although we’re passing through a very challenging period.
Richard: This is so interesting, Michael. I noticed you’ve cited something called Project Eureka connected with light. A special box was made and light is shone into the box. But the way the box is constructed, when you look into the box all you see is darkness. It’s actually full of light, but you can’t see the light, that is, until something is put into the box. Talk a little bit about what it is that interested you using this example as, I think, as a kind of metaphor.
Michael: It’s really extraordinary. This is a project done by the physicist, Arthur Zajonc. He and his friend designed a science exhibit, in which one views a region of space that’s filled with light. They’d taken special care to ensure that light does not illuminate any interior objects or surfaces in the box. Within the box there’s only pure light, and lots of it. The question that they had is, what does one see? How does light look when left entirely to itself?
So, the projector sends a brilliant light through optical elements into the box, and when they went over to the view port and looked in, they saw absolute darkness. Although the box is filled with light, they saw nothing but the blackness of empty space.
Now, on the outside of the box, there’s a handle connected to a wand that can move into and out of the box’s interior. And when the wand moves into the dark space, it becomes brilliantly lit on one side. So, the space is clearly not empty. It’s filled with light. Yet, without an object on which the light can fall, one sees only darkness. They say light itself is always invisible. We see only things, only objects, not light.
Now, I thought this was an extraordinary metaphorical device, because there are certain things that are important to life on Earth, important to human life, but these things cannot be known directly. They can only be known through the instrument of the vehicle.
We would call these spiritual capacities or qualities. For example, intelligence. Right? Nobody has ever seen intelligence. Creativity, love, all of these things are not available for direct sense inspection. We come to know them by the signs that they produce.
I was using that discovery in physics, to speak about the human spirit. The human spirit cannot be known directly. We come to know it by the signs that it produces. And of course, one of the greatest signs of the development and efflorescence of the human spirit is civilization itself.
So, when we see the capacity to love, the capacity to pursue truth, the capacity to will—when we see these capacities reflected in the life of a society, we see the efflorescence of the sciences, art, industry, the inventions upon which civilization depends. So, for me, that was a powerful encounter with how science and religion can support one another, inform one another and illuminate one another.
Richard: That’s lovely.
Preeta: Michael, thank you so much. This is such an extraordinary conversation and there’s so much richness in all that you’ve shared with us. For me, what’s so striking is the parallel between your own life of hope and what you’re studying, and offering as a vision for our collective futures.
So, I wanted to go back to one point you mentioned earlier. You said a good clinician can re-awaken a sense of vision or of an imagined possibility into which, people who are traumatized, can begin to build a new life. I'm wondering if you can give us an example from your own clinical practice of how that might work in an individual case?
Michael: That’s a really great question. There’s a young man I saw, pretty early in my career. Let’s call him Daniel, a young man who said that when he turns 21, he was going to kill himself. We had every indication that he was, in fact, going to kill himself, because he was doing all kinds of reckless things. For example, he used to play this game—two people drop lit cigarettes on their arms, and the first person to move is called “chicken.” Well, Daniel, when he came to my office, had severe third-degree burns all up and down his arm from playing chicken. He also had a terrible history with drug use; he’d destroy his parents’ house when he became enraged. So, he was brought in to see me.
In my discussions with him, I imagined that Daniel was actually a great spirit, because who can sit for five minutes with a burning cigarette on his arm and not move? To me, he was an extraordinary spirit, but he didn’t know that. So, I said, “Daniel, give me one thing you’d like to change before you kill yourself on your birthday.” (It was three months from the time that I met him.) To my amazement, he said, “For the last 20 years, I’ve been a terrible liar. If there was any way I could escape from this before I die, that would be a wonderful thing.”
So, I said to him, “Daniel, I want you to leave my office and come back tomorrow morning at six a.m. I don’t want you to utter a single word that’s contrary to the truth, even if you have to remain silent for the entire time.” I said six a.m., because in order for him to get to my office at six a.m., he’d have to get up at 3:30 or 4:00 because of the distance he lived from me. So, I was trying to summon the great spirit that’s Daniel that he didn’t know about.
Sure enough, six o’clock in the morning, he arrives with a beaming face. He said, “I did it!” He was so proud of himself. Then I said, “Daniel, give me something else you’d like to accomplish before you kill yourself.”
We conducted ourselves this way every day, five days a week, until the eve of his birthday. On the eve of that day, I told him a story about a Native American village where a group of missionaries lived who didn’t respect the Native Americans. One of the young boys was particularly cruel to the Native Americans and would try to humiliate them at every chance. He’d caught this bird and went to one of the elders in the village and said, “Is the bird dead or alive?” If the elder said the bird was dead, he was going to open his hands, let the bird fly away and laugh. If he said the bird was alive, he was going to squeeze and kill the bird, and drop it in front. So, the elder knew this and said to him, “The bird is in your hands.”
This is what I said to Daniel when he left my office, “The bird is in your hands.”
The next Monday morning, he was supposed to be there at six a.m. Seven o’clock, he’s not there; eight o’clock he’s not there. I'm thinking, “Oh, my God. Has this kid killed himself?” But I'm afraid that if I call the police or his parents, the whole thing that we’d been working on would be lost.
Sure enough, at 9:07, my phone rings. It’s Daniel. I said, “Daniel, where are you?”
He says, “I’m in Florida.”
I said, “What are you doing in Florida?”
He said, “I wanted my grandmother to see the person that I’ve become.”
I said, “Daniel, be in my office tomorrow morning at six a.m.” And in order for him to do that, he had to drive through the night. Sure enough, six a.m. the following day, he’s in my office.
I went to Switzerland after seeing him. Two years later, when I was back, I was going through a grocery store and heard somebody call out, “Doctor Penn! Doctor Penn!”
I look over and it was Daniel. He was pushing a cart and had a wife. He introduced me and said, “My life is completely changed. I love you.”
And I said, “I love you too, Daniel.”
This is a simple example. I think that many clinicians are calling upon the powers of the human spirit to create new possibilities. Daniel needed to have someone help him to realize that, actually, he was a great man with extraordinary powers and potential, but that he needed to draw upon that power in order to make a life that he could respect and live with dignity.
Preeta: What a gift you were able to provide to Daniel! And following-up on that, here’s a question we received online from Gayathri in India. She asks, “What does research show about good methods to pull oneself out of hopelessness and helplessness in the face of trauma, particularly in the perspective of collected traumatic experience of materialism, climate change, et cetera. She says, “It’s hard to envision a different future when most of the world seems headed down a self-destructive path.” This is a big question, but what could help us, as a collective, pull ourselves out of hopelessness and helplessness?
Michael: Right. I think it’s true that turmoil convulsing human affairs is unprecedented. There are dangers unimagined in all of history, gathering around a distracted humanity. But I think also, the greatest error we could make at this juncture, would be to allow the crisis to cast doubt on the ultimate outcome of a process that is occurring.
It seems to me that humanity is in a stage of pregnancy, trying to give birth to something new. We’ve been engaged in a process of trying to create something new. For the last 100, or even 150, years humanity has been at a turning point. It’s hopeful whenever people speak to the nobler aspirations and visions, not just railing against what’s gone wrong with the world, but offering a vision of how we could, for example, organize our community life in ways that are more respectful of women, more respectful of children. How could we use the arts to inspire one another to higher levels of cooperation, unity, consciousness? How could we extend the reach of education working, not so much on an abstract global level, but working in communities?
One of the things we’re doing in the neighborhood I'm living in is what are called Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Programs. We work with college-age and high school youth to develop the most noble qualities of character. Then they use their collective capacities to render service to the neighborhood to demonstrate in their own lives that young people can be great assets to a community.
We believe that when we carry out these simple projects in a consistent, long-term way, what we do is nurture the hopeful vision that’s really at the foundation of the human spirit and heart. It’s not sufficient to complain about the difficulties in which we’re living. We’re summoned, in some way, to use our powers and capacities to inspire others, to encourage others, to work with others to gradually bring into being the kind of world we wish to see.
Preeta: In terms of your life story, I'm thinking of two particular times, one was when you were in boarding school and not necessarily handling it in a way you were proud of, and then the story of the night before you met Katinka; you felt that you might die of loneliness. Were there other times of helplessness or hopelessness in your life? And what allowed you to keep going?
Michael: I’ve come to rely a great deal on the sacred arts of prayer and meditation. I think that meditation is greatly underestimated as a human power. Even as a young boy, even as a teenager, when I was going through serious difficulties, I would spend a great deal of time in states of meditation. Meditation helped me metabolize a lot of the anxiety and would enable me to go, say, for a few more hours, or a few more days. Sometimes the only thing you can do is to keep yourself going until a new dawn arises in your life, until a new opportunity emerges.
My own ancestors, African Americans, endured tremendous difficulty. My mother is one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met in my life. And my dad, a Native American—although he was an alcoholic—was very, very wise, very grounded, very calm and very assured that life is mysteriously organized in such a way as to bring out the best in us, if we allow it to do that. Our lives, through tremendous stress and tremendous difficulty, can mine the inner virtues and qualities we have that we don’t even know about. So, that’s always been a part of my latent philosophy.
Just to be clear, I also think that the Holy Ones—the founders of the great religions, the prophets, the great seers and messengers—have a tremendously inspiring influence on the human heart, on the human soul. So I commonly turn to them. I think we have to draw upon these vast spiritual resources. And of course, the wonderful science of psychology is making great contributions. We have to encourage one another and work together. We have to believe that just as an individual has different stages of development, childhood, infancy, adolescence, and adulthood, so humanity, as a species, has different phases of development.
One gets the sense that we’re in the adolescent stage of our collective development, struggling to grow into our maturity. So, I'm hopeful. And if you look over the last 3,000 years, you’ll see that we’ve made extraordinary strides, but they’re also followed by periods of reversal that are very painful.
Preeta: Well, I just want to share that because of your story and inspiring words, we’ve had an outpouring of people sharing their stories of hopelessness and hope. Let me just share a couple of them. Rose from the UK writes, “In 2016, I was given two years to live. I’d lost my husband of 33 years four years earlier. After the diagnosis, I lost my business of 18 years. I faced my own mortality daily, for a year-and-a-half. Then, miraculously, I discovered it was a misdiagnosis. Those two years were the most challenging of my life, but it was how I came to discover the power of hope, and this is what I’d like to share on the call.”
Michael: That’s so wonderful. Wow, that’s fantastic. Thank you.
Preeta: Biba wrote in, “I was a hopeless, chronically depressed, suicidal food addict, but now, by divine miracle, I’m recovered and give hope to others as a coach for weight loss and freedom from compulsive eating.” There are several more stories as well. But I wanted to ask—you’ve talked about your wife as being an important partner, and I wonder if you can just tell us a little about her and some of the activities you host locally in your home?
Michael: Sure. Oh, my wife! Kathy Penn. I wish you could feature her. She’s quite extraordinary person. And I met her under mysterious circumstances. I’d been longing to find a spouse, and I started to have dreams. This went on for about six months. I’d see my wife, but veiled. I had the sense she was a very pure-hearted, wonderful person, and that I was going to meet her very soon. Every day, I’d be looking out for her. Then one day, a Saturday morning, I had a very strong sense that it was day I was going to meet her.
I dressed appropriately and went out. But during the day, I forgot. I was washing the dishes at a friend’s house, and a woman came and stood next to me. I turned to her and spontaneously, said, “We should go out sometime!”
She said, “Yes, we should go out today.”
It turned out she had two children, so we decided, “Let’s take these children to the museum.” We did, and as we were driving home, I suddenly remembered the dreams I’d been having. I turned to her and said, “I think we’re going to get married.”
She said, “Perhaps we will,” and three months later, we were married. She has turned out to be such an amazing human being, and does everything in service to others.
Two or three times a week, she makes breakfast, which is a part of the morning prayers and meditations on Monday mornings. We invite students and people from the neighborhood who wish to come; we have wonderful conversation. It’s the whole idea of trying to develop a sense of community, that we are not alone, that we are here for one another. People of all religious faiths and backgrounds come and bring their poetry, their odes, their stories, their music.
Then she does something in the evenings for students of color. She’s just a giver, a lover and her dad was a physicist. She comes from a family that’s really bright, but at the same time, down-to-earth and accessible. So, she’s a strange combination of brilliance and sweet, accessible, simple kindness. I love her so much. We enjoyed our 33rd wedding anniversary just four days ago, and I hope you get a chance to meet her sometime.
Preeta: She sounds as remarkable as you! Thank you for sharing that. One quick follow-up—did you have formal training in meditation when you were younger, and are there certain practices you carry on now?
Michael: In the early stages, I was guided by my mom’s practices. She always began each day with prayer and meditation. She developed a very deep contemplated life and I would just watch her. So, I quite naturally, took that practice into my own life. Then when I was at the synagogue, I’d watch how the Jewish people engaged with the sacred. I learned a lot from that. Then I would attend these Baptist churches, and see how they’d use music and song to uplift the spirit and caress the heart when it was in need of remediation.
All that developed quite naturally, but when I started to become a serious spiritual seeker, I started to study meditation in some of the Buddhist traditions and in some of the Baha’i traditions. And some of the great prayers I do very commonly for my students, are also part of my meditation.
Preeta: That’s fabulous. I'm wondering—I mean, I'm so heartened by your presence in academia, but at least from my experience with academia, you’re a little unusual. How has been for you?
Michael: I’m fortunate because I teach at an outstanding college with extraordinary scholars, and they accept me for who I am. I think that, for many of them, I’m an enigma. But no one has tried to suppress me or belittle the contribution I’m seeking to make. In the beginning though, because I’d come as an experimental psychopathologist, when I walked away from the laboratory, people wonder whether you’re any good anymore. So, I had to establish that my work was still relevant and important—though in a completely different mode.
Preeta: Great. Well, I wanted to ask a question we like to ask all of our speakers. How can we, as a global ecosystem—the Service Space network—how can we support your work?
Michael: I have to say that I’ve derived so much inspiration from listening to the talks of Nipun Mehta. And also, one of his students is also one of my students, Sophie Wu. Just encountering people who take very seriously the possibility that we could render service seeking no advantage to ourselves, seeking that which is conducive to the well-being of humankind, that in itself, is inspiration for my work.
I hope that over the years, I can be more involved in Service Space and come to know more of the people who are involved in it, because I think that it’s exactly where humanity, as a species, is going. We are going to that plane where we can serve one another with genuine love, genuine humility, and bring out the best in one another. That’s what I would say.
Preeta: Beautiful. If you don’t mind, are you willing to take one more question? This is from a listener, Michelle...
Michelle: Hi, Michael. I live in San Jose, California and have been very active in generating interest and commitment here to take on the UN sustainable development goals. I’m wondering if you have any ideas about how to bring that particular conversation into activism and building what I call the neural net that’s necessary for us to have a government system that can see globally in leadership, that can see all cultures?
Michael: You know, there’s nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come. At the UN, I serve something called the UN Leaders Program. The UN, essentially, does two things. It attempts to address the problems of the world, and it also tries to imagine or envision where the world might be going and tries to help it move in positive directions. So, one of the things we’re trying to persuade the UN to do is to bring a consciousness of the oneness and interdependence of humankind into everyday discourse on the local level.
So, rather than thinking about the protection of human rights as only the responsibility of state actors, what if we could inspire young people in elementary schools, junior high schools, high schools and colleges across the country, to uphold the principle of the oneness of humanity, and to promote the dignity of all human beings? To say to the governments of the world, “This is the direction we desire to go, because we’ve already experimented for 3,000 years with various forms of exploitation and war. Let’s try something new.”
We want to stimulate discourse that would bring a larger number of people into an awareness of the power of their voices to move history in new directions. I think this can be one of the goals that could animate the 21st century. And it’s something we’re working on. I’m excited to know somebody is working in San Jose on the UNDP project, because if we can accomplish that goal and other goals associated with that initiative, that would be a great leap forward.
Preeta: Thank you Michael for sharing your incredible journey of hope, your vision for hope, and the hope that you’ve provided to so many individuals in your clinical work.
Richard: It’s been a truly inspiring hour-and-a-half, Michael. I hope this will be continued in some way.