For over 9 years, I have run social skills groups for kids and adolescents. Some have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, but others have social challenges that come from attention problems, anxiety, intellectual delays, and even family situations. It is one of the most rewarding, yet at times, challenging parts of my week as I work to not only provide good social-emotional instruction, but also creating a safe, comfortable, and accepting environment for youth often do not feel this in other places. Almost a decade of running these groups have left me with some hilarious quotes and sad circumstances, but also some insights that have changed the way I look at my life and that of others, especially as it pertains to the social world.
Recently, the focus of my adolescent group was on what it takes to work together as a team. Discussions of brainstorming, dividing responsibilities, and being accountable for work led to a fun “team” activity at the end. As these youth love their science fiction, I charged them with developing a new superhero—they had to come up with a name, planet of origin, picture, special powers, weaknesses, and an overall mission for this character. The teens quickly dove into the project, and it was neat to see them being creative together.
Yet as it came together, I was struck by one particular superhero that emerged, developed by two teens that have particularly struggled with feeling isolated and estranged from their peers. With their permission and that of their parents, I share as follows. Their superhero was named Valor, and he comes from the planet earth. He possesses super strength and rocket launching capabilities, but the source of these superpowers is from absorbing the patriotism of the citizens around him. The stronger the patriotism is, the stronger he becomes. Yet when divisiveness increases and patriotism declines, just like kryptonite for Superman, his superpowers diminish even though he appears just the same.
As the group ended, and as I was biking home, I found myself reflecting on Valor as it relates to all of us. Each day, the energy we have for both mundane and courageous tasks is influenced by what we feel from others—whether they be in our families, workplace, communities, or even our world. When tension and divisiveness increases, our “superpowers” seem to dissipate, too. In the current political climate, it is easy to see how the divisiveness is making all of us less effective agents of change, and valor. Patriotism that denies and minimizes egregious actions on the part of political officials is not desired. But neither is a repeated attempt to undermine or criticize individuals at all costs no matter whether it is productive or not.
As patriotism is defined as “vigorous support for one’s country”, I would argue that patriotism must first start with vigorous support for one’s people that make up the country itself. If the people of any place are not healthy and connected enough to provide for what we need, then all is lost, and there is nothing left to be proud of anyway. Whether it is in regard to political or ideological opinions, or personal or professional ones, it seems that the message of Valor is that patriotism and bravery are not just something that we give, but also receive. Even beyond those that blog and post various opinions, so often close friends and family members spend inordinate amounts of time trying to convince another that their opinion is right and just, yet may rarely take the time to ask questions and truly understand and reflect on why a person might think and feel the way he or she does.
It sure would make for a happier and more patriotic existence if our opinions and ideas started with admissions of acknowledgement and reflection instead of scathing rhetoric and absolute demands. All kinds of communication are critical for our nation. But “free speech” with no sense of empathy is just scorn masking as righteousness just as “patriotic speech” without truthfulness is just indifference masking as loyalty. Like any potential attribute, either style of speaking can be used for degradation and demoralization, especially when pride comes into play. And when this happens, it is as if the collective well of good will starts to drain, and we find ourselves in our respective corners wondering why we feel exhausted and ineffective at the end of the day. So, just as the superhero Valor needed positivity from others, so we need to remember that the person and entity I clash with one day might be just the who or what I need in the next. Otherwise, our superpowers will be rendered for not, and planet earth will start crumbling like a comic book gone awry.