What Does a Developmental Psychologist See in a 40th Class Reunion?

When I told people I was going to my 40th high school reunion, I might as well have said I was jumping off a cliff. Almost across the board, the reaction was shock, though the reasons varied. Granted, I hadn’t been in touch with my classmates, so some degree of surprise was legitimate. But my friends and family also projected their own reasons: high school had been the “worst time of their lives”; that they had never “fit in”; they didn’t want to open their present lives to judgment. But I’m a developmental psychologist, and I wanted to understand what a reunion ritual might mean. Nothing is more interesting to me than discovering how children grow up and their lives turn out.

As the date approached, I finally became apprehensive myself. Most of us had been together since kindergarten, but what if I didn’t recognize people after forty years? After all, I now have silver hair and 40 additional pounds; others would also have changed. Or what if we didn’t have anything to talk about? How would I react to an old “flame,” or he to me? Could I finally uncover the story behind a friend who had so traumatically “dropped” me in sixth grade? When nervous jokes started showing up on the Facebook reunion page, I saw that I wasn’t the only one with anxiety. I recruited a childhood friend to go with me.

“I’m only doing this for you, you know,” Vic joked when she greeted me at my hotel. Our mothers went to high school together and been friends long before we were born. Vic remembers the fuzzy socks I wore in second grade and how my father had carried me into school in his arms when my broken leg was in a cast. I remember making vinegar and baking soda volcanoes at Vic’s house and singing soprano next to her in choir.

We arrived at the Curling Club (home to the winter sport of sliding granite stones on ice) to a frenzy of slightly boozed-up greetings. About a third of my class of 140 was there. A current of excitement crackled through the crowd—hails from across the lawn; flying wisecracks and boisterous teasing; and enthusiastic, if somewhat self-conscious, hugging. It was a relief to find my old friend Dave, who was just as unruffled as I’d remembered him—a straight shooter, unperturbed by his surroundings. He had worked for a time for my father, a milkman; his mother had been my beloved third grade teacher. I was happy to meet Dave’s wife, and a meaningful conversation ensued about parents, illness, children, and more.

Sociologist Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi has observed that high school reunions can trigger a sudden threat to one’s identity. In the space of a short gathering, we are called upon to reconcile past expectations with our present reality, among people who shared that past. At my reunion, the actual list of predictions that our peers had made about each other 40 years ago hid amidst the memorabilia. “Diana will run a computer dating service,” it read, and the old memory of craving connection amidst my chaotic environment flashed. Other predictions were equally unpredictive: that a high school romance would end in marriage (it didn’t) or that a career would peak in a grocery store stockroom (it didn’t); and predictions for women centered on marriage and children. Predictions can be entertaining, but since these weren’t about activating our best future selves, I regretted their presence. Reunions are not just happy gatherings, Vinitzky-Seroussi writes. They “telescope the life course” and create pressure to evaluate, or protect, or project our choices, often in the space of a very short, catch-up conversation.

But this was not our tenth or even twenty-fifth reunion, the early ones that Vinitzky-Seroussi studied. This was our fortieth, a time when life achievements are behind for most of us and some are even looking toward retirement. Fortunately, I felt well-anchored in the present, and I think others did, too.

The conventional wisdom about reunions is that people can surprise you, and I found that to be true. Who would have known that the quiet boy in the back of the band would be a pillar of the community as the trusted funeral director? Or that the guy who seemed lost in high school would be so crisp and successful at 58? Psychologists use the terms “equifinality” and “multifinality” to describe how very different paths can lead to similar outcomes, or, conversely, how similar paths can lead to very different outcomes. At the same time, our perceptions of what’s important changes, too: The kids who once dominated in popularity might now appear boring and superficial, and the former “outsiders” often turn out to be the really interesting ones. And yet when I asked Vic if she recognized everyone, she replied, “Not so much from their faces, but their energy—it’s the same.”

Even though we all shared a large part of our pasts, we couldn’t have truly known each others’ lives while we were children. A few kids had seemed to sail through with equanimity—they ran the student council at school and collected maple syrup at home–but even then, there were hints of malaise. I knew that it wasn’t right that the gentle, deer-like boy who sat in front of me in seventh grade homeroom smelled like alcohol and cigarettes. Another child was rumored to have been abused, though there was no action taken to protect her. I was a high achiever but suffered with parents who were in constant conflict; they struggled with mental health and substance use issues. Many parents were alcoholics before the disease was even named.

Psychologists now know that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are predictive of later physical and mental health problems, including heart disease, depression, and suicidality.  Research suggests that about a third of kids are lucky enough to escape trauma, but about a quarter suffer such high doses that it affects brain development, immune and endocrine functioning, and can create mental and physical disease systems that reduce the lifespan by an average of 20 years. How different might many students’ lives have been if an adult had recognized their feelings and had the skill to approach them and say, “You look down. What’s going on, and can I help?” Today, innovative schools throughout the country are feathering emotional skill development into their academic curricula, and studies show that both individual kids, and the school as a whole do better. Pediatricians, too, are beginning to screen for ACEs and offer early intervention services to families and children at risk.

Childhood is not easy, even at the best of times, and middle school is an especially stressful period. Conventional wisdom used to hold that it was the changing sex hormones that made kids “crazy,” but scientists now understand that puberty kicks off changes in the brain that make youth more emotionally sensitive, more sensitive to their social world, more willing to take risks, and more vulnerable to mental illness and addictions. Combine all of that with changes in schools, new peer groups, or family troubles, and you quickly get a pile-up of stressors that can be overwhelming.

Jockeying for status in peer groups begins as early as the fifth grade, and, in my day, peer dynamics were raw and lacking any guidance. Consistent with the research, it was the male athletes and the conventionally pretty girls (especially cheerleaders) who were conferred high status, and kids who were “different” were often marginalized—through teasing, exclusion, and gossip. Girls who physically matured earlier than average, or boys who matured later than average, were at greater risk, just as they are today. Too tall, too skinny, too heavy, too awkward, too shy, too country, too slow…the “faults” can be endless. 

Kids naturally form and re-form friendships, but without real social skills, the process can be excruciating. In sixth grade, I was shattered when my best friend of six years decided one day to simply stop talking to me. While it’s natural for a child to feel ready to find new friends, this particular friend had had no skills with which to explain her needs. Her silent treatment left a mark, and I used it both as a cautionary tale for my own children and an illustration in the college courses I taught on teen development. Research now shows that humans are such intensely social creatures that social ostracism lights up physical pain pathways in the brain; it can be more damaging than even physical abuse. Sometimes, I imagine how our friendship “breakup” could have gone differently, had we had the social skills kids can learn in school nowadays to navigate peer conflict. Though my well-being is no longer affected by that experience, I was curious to know my former friend’s side of the story. Yet when we greeted each other at the reunion, we didn’t get much beyond a hello. I took that to mean that it was not likely to be the place—or perhaps the person—where such a conversation could happen.

“Humans are storytelling, story-loving creatures,” says psychologist Matthew Lieberman, author of Social Brain, Social Mind. One of the most powerful ways we understand the experience of being human is by constructing a narrative of our lives. Young children begin this process as soon as they learn the word “I,” and parents begin telling them stories about when they were little. And at the other end of lifespan, elders engage in a “life review,” telling and retelling their stories to help them make sense of their lives.

Reunions—where our past selves meet our present selves—can be a special opportunity to re-weave our stories. I observed it happening all evening. One woman who had seemed defiant and tough in junior high apologized to the PE teacher, telling her that she hadn’t meant to be the teacher’s “nemesis” but in fact was a military kid who got moved around a lot.

“I never knew that,” the teacher breathed, empathically.

A man who had been a geek before geeks were cool enthusiastically shared that he was an inventor, held patents, had designed a part of the space shuttle and a medical device, and had made millions doing so.

A friend divulged her confusion about some same-sex experimentation that had gone on at a childhood sleepover. Of course there had been no framework for normalizing that, or even language to name it.

I, too, had a story to revise. When a popular biology teacher’s name came up, I shared that six years after we’d graduated, he had prevented my Lutheran church from marrying me and my husband, because my husband is from India. “He’s not a good guy,” I grumbled about the teacher.

The life stories flowed, from what it’s like for a Minnesotan to be transplanted to the Deep South, to taking care of grandchildren, to being the youngest in a senior citizen woodworking shop, to losing a child. There was a lot of loss and growth to process, as well as joy to celebrate.

One evening is not enough time together to truly span 40 years; it’s just a sliver of reality. But I happily put new numbers and email addresses into my phone. I want to keep up with some old friends, and I discovered new ones that I’d missed earlier.

And that old flame?

“I learned from you,” he told me. “Your family had high expectations, and I craved some of that.”

“You sheltered me at a stormy time,” I replied, remembering his laughter and easy-going manner.

Class reunion? For me, at least, it wasn’t so scary. What we went through together mattered, and bearing witness to one another’s stories—from our shared past and the years that had followed— felt like a good way to honor that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Does a Developmental Psychologist See in Burning Man?

When I sent my 86-year old father my photos from Burning Man, he replied that he didn't understand: Wasn't it for "hippie kids"? What was I doing there, and what did the experience do for me?

The Love Bus (photo by Zai Divecha)

The Burn is famously different for each participant. Some Burners go to strut and party, some to share their art, a few to network and get ahead. Approaching our 60s, my husband and I get the most pleasure from camping there with our 20-something kids who extended an open invitation for the second time. But I also go to stay fresh, keep up on emerging ideas, and to prevent the fixed mindset I fear might creep in with age.

Like everyone, I bring my own kaleidoscopic lens to the playa. In my everyday life as a developmental psychologist, I experience much of my social world through a chronological telescope: When I look at children, I see the adults they may become; when I meet adults, I see the children they likely were. I’m keenly aware that we are all developing, all the time.

And I recognize that we are not nailed uniformly to a single rung on some developmental ladder. While some parts of us are reasonably established in adulthood, some parts of us remain deep in childhood. Psychologists call this normal developmental unevenness décalage, a French word that translates to “lag” or “gap.” Many people are not stuck but move flexibly and adaptively—like various spiritual teachers I’ve encountered, whose equanimity is spacious and evolved, yet who can erupt with the laughter and delight of young children.

My headdress (photo by Zai Divecha)

At home, preparing for Burning Man, I gave myself permission to go the craft table and the dress-up corner to immerse myself in the elixir of creativity and make-believe. I emerged wearing a homemade caftan, wooden necklaces, and a medieval horned headpiece, along with a second headpiece of papier-mâché branches sprouting from a drywall skullcap anchored inside a turban. By the time I hopped on my bike at the edge of the playa, I could see my 10-year-old self in the mirror.

In my adult life, I advocate for improving childhood through my research, speaking, and writing. And there's much to do. In the first twenty years of life, we find out how the world works and we wrangle a place in it. For some, the process is kind, and for others it is bumpy yet manageable. For a surprising number, though, it is a tortured and traumatic path and they are deposited at the door of adulthood with handicaps and scar tissue. In a famous study of over 17,000 adults, about a third said their childhoods were free of “adverse childhood experiences” (one of ten serious conditions that can derail a child’s life), but about a quarter reported three or more types of traumas— a number that science now links to emotional and physical problems that persist well into adulthood.

And in a Hansel-and-Gretel world, the places meant to shelter, nurture, and protect children are the ones that do the most damage. Many children are traumatized in their homes, and show up at school unable to concentrate or manage their strong feelings. They are frequently misdiagnosed, drugged, punished or expelled. When adults have emotional problems, they are treated as mental health concerns, but when children have emotional struggles, they are often "behavior problems" to be controlled. Schools, too, can be unsafe:  Punishment is a popular but harmful approach to managing children, while cultivating kind, emotionally supportive school cultures is effective but slow to catch on. About a quarter of kids are bullied or harassed at school--an experience that can undermine the rest of their lives. Children do not enjoy the same relationship rights that adults are privileged with; they're made to return, day after day, to the places and people who abuse them.

Burners are a well-educated, modestly financially secure group, but emotional difficulties are equal opportunity. The playa is sometimes described as a kind of playground, but through my eyes it is unlike the one of our childhoods. This one acknowledges some real developmental concerns. Through installations, workshops, and talks, Burning Man offers a chance for some re-dos. Some rewiring.

And it can start with letting go of some of the grief collected on the journey so far. The Temple of Promise, a stunning Gothic cornucopia rising 97 feet above the playa—is a paean to both the normal and the outsized suffering of being human.

Temple of Promise (photos by Diana and Arjun Divecha)

Visitors walk through its increasingly narrowing form, leaving baggage, burdens, pains, fears, and mementos to be burned away at the end of the week. Messages fill and are hung from every available surface, and this year someone left three small suitcases. One woman vented an angry diatribe of suffering at the hands of an abusive stepfather and a complicit mother. Another message was written to parents who had died in a plane accident: “I have not been in a small plane since yours was taken down,” it said. “A friend has offered to fly me over this temple, and I am going to try to overcome my fear. My love is eternal.” On our fourth walk through the temple, my husband quietly released some of the sorrow of losing his mother three months ago.

Reflect (photo by Diana Divecha)

A giant 20-by-40-foot colored tear drop, called Reflect, was captured at the point where it hits water, to represent all the tears shed by those left behind when someone takes his or her own life.

In childhood, adult power hierarchies—based on social status, gender, ethnicity, even height and attractiveness—are replicated inside the school walls, and kids learn early who’s on top and who’s pushed to the exit ramps. Kids often punish each other for being different, and power structures like schools and other institutions use whatever behavioral control possible to keep kids “in line.” 

A 50-foot chapel called the Totem of Confessions contained dioramas of surreal and dreamlike black-and-white photos, oddities that might pop up from the subconscious into dreams or fantasies or fears, and that would likely be considered shameful by others. And as a reminder of ever-present judgment, there was a confessional in the interior of the chapel.

Totem of Confessions (photos by Diana Divecha)

Time Out Corner (photo by Diana Divecha)

A Time Out Corner appeared out of nowhere on the playa, recalling the frequent punishment—deserved or not—of our childhood transgressions. Timeouts for children are now understood to be ineffective, even harmful. Brain imaging studies show they light up the same neural pathways as physical pain.

Some days, after writing about bullying and trauma, I marvel that most of us make it to adulthood as well as we do. The striving to connect, to still try, to be able to still wonder, was manifest in the sculpture Love. There, two massive wire adult forms were seated back-to-back, heads down in withdrawal, while the glowing child inside each of them reached out for the other, touching hands.

Love (photo by Diana Divecha)

Identity Awareness    (photo by Diana Divecha)

Identity Awareness (photo by Diana Divecha)

At Burning Man, there is an invitation to sort out what is personal encumbrance and artifice, from what authentically belongs to us. A giant question mark, barely propped up by a human figure reminded us to question the source of our choices, the source of our identity.

One of the Ten Guiding Principles of Burning Man—radical self-expression—is a direct antidote to the censoring—and censuring—of growing up, making space to question the conventions we take for granted. We took part with our crazy clothes, our go-with-the-flow schedules (some of us got up before dawn when others were just going to bed), and our explorations of new topics (from beekeeping to twerking). We passed the “Dick Parade” where 150 men bicycled through camp, bottomless, while gentle hecklers (a thing) encouraged the liberal use of sunscreen. In its counterpart, women paraded topless in "Critical Tits." Overhead, a man flew a glider, naked. “You’re guaranteed to not be the weirdest kid in the classroom,” the online guide soothes. It would be easy to dismiss the naked experimentation as exhibitionism, but I'm sure some riders may have been struggling with their body image or  health concerns; for some it may have been a healing process from being bullied, targeted, or abused; and perhaps others simply wanted to walk through the wall of a conventional boundary. There are as many possible reasons as there were riders.

(Photos by Arjun and Zai Divecha)

(Photo by Diana Divecha)

But by radical, they mean deep, not crazy: Consent is the cornerstone of a civil community, the Burning Man literature reads. It doesn’t refer to just sexual and physical touch, but anything that “will radically alter the experience of another person.” Prompts to good behavior were everywhere.

Another principle, "radical inclusion," is the antidote to the emotional abuse and social exclusions suffered in childhood. The consistent expectation of kindness is refreshing and softening, and people are just more present. I felt my own guardedness melt just a bit, with hugs, gifts, conversations, and gentle heckles.

Developmental psychologists find that play is the cauldron of intellectual, creative, and social development in childhood, and according to the Burner census, many people come to the playa just for that. The playful mood is their "top priority."

Everything that can be climbed on, is:

(Photos by Arjun Divecha)

You can be a flamethrower, safely:

Serpent Mother (photo by Jordana Joseph); Fire safety rules (photo by Arjun Divecha)

Puns are everywhere:

Burning Man: What Where When (photo by Arjun Divecha); Camp Nevada (photo by Diana Divecha)

And a Disney singalong and Thriller flashmob are open to all comers—not something we normally have an opportunity to attend.

The Bunny March Against Humanity herds humans into a bus and they exit dressed as bunnies. Humans haven’t done such a good job of being in charge, the organizers say. So let’s give the bunnies a chance.

“The only cure for reality,” says the author Gary Lindberg, “is imagination.”

And finally, our sense of wonder was on full throttle much of the time. The location itself is dramatic, and the playa was saturated with one stunning installation after another. 

(Photos by Diana, Arjun, and Zai Divecha, and Julie Light)

The burning of The Man at the end of the week might not just represent an anger toward the political and economic establishment but perhaps a rebellion against the colonization of the heart and spirit as well.

This is a struggle we are all wired for. As we watched a group of young yogis strain, falter, and ultimately succeed in positioning themselves atop giant letters, an observer called out encouragement, shouting “This is what it is to LIVE!”

DREAM LIVE BE OK (photo by Arjun Divecha)

 

My Daughter Took Me to Burning Man

Originally published by the Huffington Post on September 10, 2014.

I checked my packing list for the long Labor Day weekend: antler headpiece, hair extensions, hot pants, fur coat, support hose and estrogen cream. My husband and I were going to Burning Man for the first time -- under the tutelage of our 26-year old daughter, Zai, her partner, Phil, and a large group of their friends.

We packed up the car with food and water for five days, drove to the Nevada desert, and, after a three-hour wait at the gate watching the sunset -- some waited 23 hours while the gates closed for rain on the playa -- it was our turn at the entrance. A distant din and twinkling lights beckoned in the otherwise dark void ahead.

"Welcome home," the young attendant smiled as she took our tickets. "First time?" We told her it was. "Birgins! Please get out of the car, roll in the dust, and ring the bell!"

It's easy to make fun of Burning Man from a distance, and many have. It's even easier up close: People stroll naked or half-naked, in Star-Wars-meets-Mad-Max-meets-Indian-guru garb. Sessions are offered on respectful fisting, penis worship, and making your own greeting cards by stamping your genitals with colorful paint on cardstock -- a craft I typically enjoy, though I've never used that particular stamp.

There is no Internet or cell coverage, no plumbing and no power grid. My husband Arjun gravitates to new experiences, and while I'd rather meditate in a lush forest, I was determined to keep an open mind. I respected our daughter and trusted that what she valued here would be revealed to me. After all, her visit the previous year had inspired her decision to leave a secure job and pursue her passion for metal working and furniture design. I wanted to know -- what could be so powerful here?

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