IN THE LATE 1950s, I was studying to be a child psychiatrist. My supervisors were trained in psychoanalysis and soon I was in analysis myself and taking courses at a psychoanalytic institute. I remember the most erudite and prominent of those teachers -- his long silences, his wariness with words when he did choose, finally, to use them. I remember, too, a paper he delivered at a psychoanalytic meeting -- the emphasis he put on the "value-free " stance we ought to take as we do our work.
He made a point of keeping his office subdued in its decorative scheme, with few signs, signals, stimuli -- few clues for his patients to notice. A drab, coldly functional place, I recall thinking -- but that was the point, really. He and others were constantly reminding us how objective we had to become about our subjectivity, how patients can get sidetracked by our pictures and books, our private interests.
When one of us (not me -- I was too anxious then to be a good, obliging boy) reminded that distinguished doctor of Freud's office with its abundance of artifacts, we were given the inevitable lecture about "those early days" when a pioneer was exploring unknown territory. After all, we were of another generation of mind-doctors.
Science now demanded rigor, established procedure, controlled behavior. The buzz- words were "neutrality" and "value-free" -- an impersonality marked occasionally by one's subdued interpretive remarks.
I mention those past moments in a particular professional life because I believe they represent what so many Americans have experienced, in one way or another, during the second half of the 20th century -- the notion that our personal values, our moral ideals and ethical standards occupy a separate realm from our working lives.
As a a doctor, lawyer, journalist or employe in X, Y or Z business, one is expected to stand back a bit, or indeed a lot; the professions have their principles to uphold.
To be sure, we hear talk of "values-clarification" -- the importance of helping others know what they believe -- while we, the teachers, the therapists, are told to "keep our own values separate," as one text exhorts. A doctor recently said to me: "My job is to explain to a person what reasons push him toward behavioral troubles that bother him, and make him come to see me. I'm no moralist!"
Even with younger children there are all sorts of moral matters to confront -- if we really cared to do so. But in my profession (for lots of people a secular religion) many of the important ethical matters which children bring up are commonly viewed in a reductionist manner -- evidence of some psychological conflict or stage. Only recently at a psychiatric conference I heard a child called "hostile" and "passive-aggressive" who had been questioning his parents about the cost of their clothes and jewelry and vacations in view of the terrible starvation he'd seen on television and heard about in school.
One wants to ask, on behalf of the child, about the real reasons those doctors were so intent on refusing to take seriously the workings of his moral sensibility, and instead wanted to turn his questions into a psychiatric issue.
But so often children (and patients) don't get heard the way some of us adults (and doctors) get heard, though when it comes to motives none of us is without them -- as a pediatrician at that conference was at pains to remind us: "I don't care what that kid was 'working out'; I'm just glad someone dared connect the way we live and the way other people live in a moral way."
For years I've struggled with such matters, and not all that successfully.
I recall the black child Ruby, only six years old in 1960, from the poorest, least educationally advantaged sort of family, who had to brave New Orleans mobs daily in order to attend a once all-white school. Dozens of grownup men and women -- only 25 years ago -- called her every foul name imaginable, and threatened to kill her.
I watched and waited, did my interviews with her, anticipated psychological symptoms as a response to severe, unrelenting stress. But the child held fast, and eventually I learned that -- of all strange things -- she'd been praying daily for those who tormented her so energetically. As she walked by the mob, sometimes a hundred or so strong, protected by federal marshals, on her way to a sadly deserted classroom, she said: "Please, dear God, forgive those folks, because they don't know what they're doing." She'd heard in Sunday school that Jesus had once reached out similarly and she was trying to follow suit.
Meanwhile I had in my big-deal social science head the awareness that six year old children aren't capable of much moral reasoning -- they're in a very "primitive" or "early" period or "stage" in that regard. No doubt they are -- and no doubt if any psychological or philosophical researcher had tested Ruby by asking her to respond to moral scenarios, she'd have flunked -- meaning that she would have shown no great power of moral analysis. But she tried to forgive her enemies, and I doubt that I'd be so forgiving under similar circumstances at Harvard -- were a mob to keep me from my classes.
I'd get the law going, call the cops and a lawyer, call the mob fancy psychiatric or sociological names, and needless to say, write an article about what I'd experienced -- maybe, as the expression goes, "get a book out of it." Ruby prayed long and hard.
Long ago -- in his great "American Scholar" address, delivered appropriately to some very bright and well-educated people, Ralph Waldo Emerson warned his listeners that character and intellect are not the same -- that as William Carlos Williams once put it, in his blunt way, "Smart doesn't necessarily mean good, not by a long shot."
One reads of such awareness, too, in the unnerving letters Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote during his concentration camp imprisonment at the hands of the Nazis -- the moral disgust he felt for so many German intellectuals who had quickly made cozy peace with Hitler and his thugs, and their counterparts abroad, who used all sorts of rationalizations to protect their daily vested interests.
I recall as a medical student, auditing a course of Reinhold Niebuhr's, hearing him tell the class that when the aristocratic and Aryan Bonhoeffer, who was in the United States studying at Union Theological Seminary, decided to return to Germany in 1939 to fight Hitler, a number of people wondered whether he might not need psychiatric help. A problem, a conflict of sorts? A masochism at work -- the need to suffer? Some neurotic "guilt" in search of exorcism through exposure to the risk of punishment?
It is embarrassing and saddening (and ever so edifying) to contemplate these vexing ironies: the ownership of the word "normal" by those who have lots of money, power, prestige; the convenience of those words "abnormal" or "sick" as a means of using the aegis medicine and science to make political and social judgments, and yes, intensely moral ones that we haven't the candor to acknowledge as being such; and not least, the glorification of psychology's "reality principle," of realpolitik in daily life -- as in "those are fine ideals, but you have to be realistic."
The longer I do my work with children and their parents here and abroad, the more I come to realize how prominently a covert kind of moral instruction figures in family life -- even though, ironically, for all our attention to children these days, in America, we have tended to neglect the moral aspect of their growth and development in favor of an emphasis on the emotional, and on the various psychologicalicts boys and girls have to confront.
I am not referring to the instruction we all bring to our children's lives quite explicitly -- the ordinary, everyday teaching of right and wrong: You cannot go here or there and must not do this or that. I have in mind another aspect of our moral lives, and maybe a rather hard-working woman with whom my wife and I have talked for several years, a nurse, a wife and mother, put her finger on what I'm getting at when she said this to us:
"I try to bring up my children so they're honest and law-abiding. But I try to go further -- I want them to be good-natured, to have mercy and compassion in them, to reach out to others, who aren't as lucky as they are. We're not rich; we're just plain working people, my husband and I. (He works as a computer programmer.)
"It's tough, trying to be a good parent, I'll tell you -- I mean, tough if you're going to take the world seriously, and try to live up to what you hear in church, and what you believe is right. But what do you do when you see your kids being kind and generous, and they help others, and the teacher says sometimes they're so helpful to others, that they aren't looking out enough for themselves!
"I got into one of those binds a couple of years ago! I had given my little boy too many sermons, maybe! I had to give another one -- tell him that you have to balance things out, and push ahead for yourself, but try to be nice to others. Then he asked me about his Sunday school lessons -- and he said the nun told them Jesus asked a rich man to give up every thing and follow Him and that's what we should do.
"That's when my husband blew his stack; he said, 'Hey, we're not rich!' One day I agree, and the next I'll be thinking that we have a lot, and we could share it. I know what my garbage pail looks like: I'm embarrassed! I was even more embarrassed when my son told us he'd be willing to skip a trip to McDonald's: only go there once a week, not twice -- and give the money to the poor. I didn't know what to say to that! I told him we'd think about it. I hoped he'd forget his idea. I guess my husband talked with him, and that ended that!
"All these books about 'child-rearing' -- they don't tell you about that: how children can have these real 'deep' questions they ask -- about why is the world unfair, and why don't people practice what they preach, and why do people go to church and say they're Christians, but they don't really try to live the way Jesus said we should live, the way He did live and His disciples did. I now realize that not only do children ask such questions, but sometimes they'll even want to do something -- some of the good, good things they've been told about in church, or the things they've read and heard someplace they should do. But then we come along and we get alarmed. Oh, we say -- 'Hey: don't take us that seriously!'"
An ordinary American parent, neither rich nor poor, church-going but not, as she once put it, "too wrapped up in religion," she struggles with the various moral pieties we all have come to know -- some of them urging a deep, abiding commitment to others, some emphasizing one's own requirements; some stressing the community, others the individual; some declaring the virtues of charity; others the virtues of competition.
In a relaxed and comfortable moment, one can try to have the best of all worlds, try to combine various contradictory elements in this life in a way that seems reasonably decent and honorable. Maybe one is convinced, believes in the worth of one's chosen moral trajectory -- until, often enough, a child asks one of those "naive" questions (no wonder Jesus asked us all to be like children!), or until an author such as Walker Percy comes along, with his reminder (in "The Second Coming" and elsewhere) that one can "get all As and flunk ordinary living," or finally, until those college students come along, as some of those who take my courses do, to remind me that they can write a brilliant paper in a course with the title "Moral Reasoning" and then leave the classroom and be, as one put it, "the same old out-for-myself-in-the clutch person."
He also noted that it is possible for professors to give wonderful lectures on "moral analysis," or on "moral philosophy," and write books on these subjects -- and still be egotistical or selfish or inconsiderate or arrogant and self-important.
Lord, I thought, let's change the subject! If we choose, however, not to do so -- why, then we will have our hands full for life, as we struggle not only to be successful, but to be kind and thoughtful of others. And I suppose, in that regard, it is at least a start to know the difference between "smart" and "good," between "character" and "intellect," between mere words, however fancy, and daily action -- a start that, one hopes and prays, will be followed by a continuing struggle to live up to that knowledge, to putinto everyday practice more and more of those high ideas and ideals one has heard about, read about, and to encourage a similar effort on the part of one's children.