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  • Reverend James Squire

What All Students Agree Is Accurate

Photo by Maria Oswalt


I have literally taught thousands of students in Ethics Class with a new group each term. The classes were conducted with civil discourse as the norm because the exchanges were often about very controversial topics as well as theories and perspectives that the students never heard before. You could attack an issue but not a person. I also made sure to have a balanced view of perspectives so that the students could choose what was meaningful to them in living and solving large and small issues. Since I was raised with conflict in the home, I was more comfortable with lively exchanges than in a typical classroom. The students knew that only one person could talk at a time and a student could never make an ad hominin accusation where a student would attack a person and not the issue. All students were to see the class as a place for their contribution so that the quiet ones had to find their voice as well. Job one was to make the environment of the classroom so “safe” that the students learned that civil discourse works.


Disagreements and agreements about every ethical issue out there was the grist for the mill for learning new and different perspectives or how their own view held before class was confirmed. Students like to be active and not passive such as in a lecture. There were classes where the discussions left the classroom and entered the hallway and, unfortunately at times their next class.


In the mix of this kind of class, there are two things that the students agreed to at a rate of 100%. If you have worked with kids or have kids of your own, you know that getting a large number of kids to agree on two things was equivalent to a large miracle. The first thing didn’t surprise them but the second thing did in reaching 100% agreement and heads nodding in the affirmative.


It is the nature of adolescents to reject some of their students’ attitude and ideas. But here is the question: “Who has shaped your values and behavior in life the most? It can be also parents or a parenting figure like a grandparent or someone else?” All the hands agreed that it was their parents or grandparents with the exception of a few. The few protested that they do the opposite of what their parents wanted. It was a complete revelation to those people that their parents were still the reference point for what they did in rejecting them.


I had many students who were in my office with the complaint that their parents were overbearing and they couldn’t stand them. They asked too many questions. When I asked the students what kinds of questions the parents wanted to be addressed, the questions seemed to me to be OK, but the students were miserable at home. The more questions, the more the students would dig in to resist answering which created a terrible spirally of emotions downward.


I suggested they answer some of those “overbearing questions” and see what happens. What is obvious seemed like a major revelation to the students. “Hey, I did it and my parents got off my back.”  We studied the important role parents play in their lives.


The second thing that they agreed to in a unanimous fashion they didn’t see coming for they always saw their actions of making decisions based on their present and future behavior. What they needed to see was that a great amount of our decision-making is caused by what we avoid at all costs. There are three emotions that control them and control adults later in life. You see it more graphically in adolescents. You see them in Trump in the extreme as well.


We think that all decision-making is what we do or don’t do. That is not totally correct! I asked the students what are the three emotions that they would do almost anything to avoid? The force of their responses was strong and finally they got the answer that I was looking for to make my point. We often act to avoid not feeling guilt, vulnerability/embarrassment, and rejection. That avoidance shapes the way a lot of us go through life and you see it most clearly in young people because they are developing their ego strength at that point in their life. Recall that because of my embarrassment of my family’s financial challenges, I couldn’t let my friends know when I was in high school because I was embarrassed about it. They would have been a great support and later in life let me know that.


We don’t like to feel guilty because of where guilt can lead. Guilty is that I did something wrong, still a powerful deterrence, but it can move quickly to I am something wrong which is the definition of shame. The paradox here is that narcissistic people and criminals don’t feel guilt and that is problematic. In the Middle Ages guilt was referred to as “O Happy Guilt!” Our prisoners, sociopaths, and narcissists do not feel guilt therefore they don’t process consequences. Trump is brutal with his nicknames and aggressive posture of causing his targets embarrassment. Even though people seem to brush it off, Trump knows that it has a lingering desired effect of him having power over them and the Republican Party.


Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of a fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living.

The nation’s top researcher on the importance of vulnerability is Texan, Brene Brown. She has helped people in general and Fortune 500 Companies flourish as well. The very emotion that we avoid at all costs is the path to purpose, meaning and, and happiness. I have attached a short video of her theory, but she is also a popular author and has made videos to focus on the power of vulnerability including numerous TED TALKS. The video below focuses on a three minutes interview on 60 Minutes.

The victim is the opposite of vulnerability for victims blame which is a discharge of pain and discomfort. The victim is a powerful emotional and relationship phenomenon for it elicits empathy in others that the blamer does not possess himself. Think Trump!

The third emotion that we don’t want to feel is rejection. You can see this again in students at prom time and the rituals that they embark on to not being rejected by a potential prom date.

I watched a documentary on the rise of Taylor Swift. I would have shown something like it in an Ethics class because there is more to her than clamor and Travis Kelce. Her life is a struggle with the three emotions, guilt, vulnerability/embarrassment, and rejection. The problem is that people see the private jet and not the life that created it.

How do you deal with the big three; guilt, vulnerability/embarrassment and rejection? Most of us struggle with these three so that we never face “not good enough.”



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