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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Possible Self of Another


Ask an at-risk teen from an inner city who is already involved with undesirable gangs how he imagines his future - how he imagines his possible self - and he might answer that he sees himself as a drug dealer. If you then ask why he visualizes himself in that capacity, he may answer that he wants a lot of money. Work with that teen, show him something about the possibilities of life, and what he is capable of, do some healthy and conscious intervention work with him, and you may find that if nine months later you ask him the same question about how he sees his future possible self, he just might answer that he wishes to be a doctor. When you then ask why, he may still answer that he wants to make a lot of money.

So a portion of what goes on his head has changed thanks to how you see his possibilities, as opposed to how he sees them, although you are not necessarily seeing him as a doctor, but simply as a professional and law-abiding citizen with much to give. Nevertheless, at this point, while he has moved to a legitimate profession, he is still fueled by the craving for the material: he wants to make a lot of money and being a physician seems to be a good way to get there.

Do some more work with that same teen, engage with him, continue the intervention work, and if you then ask the same question once again, perhaps another nine months later, you may find that he once again answers that he wishes to be a doctor, but when you ask him why, he says that he wants to help people.

You do recognize the enormous shift that has taken place, right? From illegal drug sales to law-abiding professional and from a material urge to one that is diametrically opposed, because it is altruistic - he wants to help others. And all this is based partially on the fact that your vision of the teen was different than his own. He was able to grow into what you could see as being possible. You saw the potential. Goethe put it beautifully when he wrote: Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.

And lest you think that I am mired in Pollyana-land with my example of the teen and the monumental changes he underwent, I'd like to assure you that I was, in fact, the witness to precisely what I explained above, in a series of intervention programs that took place some years ago in Miami with at-risk youth under the auspices of Dr. William Kurtines and his on-going adolescent research work at FIU. Clearly, the example was one of the most auspicious, and clearly, not everyone reacted in quite that way. But it demonstrates what is possible. And what is possible, is not only what we see on the outside (damaged, at-risk teen with poor perspectives), but what we are capable of seeing on the inside for a future possible moment in that person's life.

Image: Antsirabe, Madagascar

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