I am always skeptical when ideologues start pontificating about American morality, but it is a subject that interests me, so I read and analyze anyway.  David Brooks, with whom I do not agree politically, has written a book and some articles lately advising us to consider the quality of our eulogies above our resumes.  Hmmm. He has a point, but …


Simultaneously, recent events that have grabbed our airwaves again are the riots and protests taking place in Baltimore and other US cities over yet another senseless death of a young man, simply for running while black.  How many of these have we had in the past year? It is hard to fathom what is going on, other than, it has always been going on but now we have millions of photographers and cameras documenting actions around the clock and posting the results to social media for the world’s scrutiny.


Then I also heard Joe Biden invoking some famous American lawmaker from the past saying in essence that the purpose of our lives on earth is to try to make things better for everyone.

When I was choosing a future career, I didn’t have to think twice.  From the time I was a very little girl, I knew I wanted to study people and to be a psychologist.

When I got to school, even though it was taught by really smart people, the field of psychology seemed a bit chaotic. There are many competing schools of thought and practice, so choosing among them was a bit daunting.  I decided to focus on children, early childhood, and those who had emotional challenges (which used to be referred to as the emotionally disturbed). While I was at it, I got a degree in special education along with my psych credential, just in case I didn’t plan to go on to grad school.  To do this, I had to take courses literally around the calendar year and ended up with a lot of credits.


Part of this work was practica, both student teaching and internship.  I did both, somehow, in an inner city ghetto. This was, I now realize, along the lines of my mother’s career.  Hers  began as a kindergarten teacher of Down’s Syndrome children in Harlem. If you could imagine my red-haired, very young English mother facing down some formidable adolescents in the school where she was teaching, you would get the idea of what strength and conviction she must possess.

Not so her daughter.  My assignments put me among some very sad, disadvantaged, and abused children, too. But, not having her non-plussed  equanimity, I found myself totally absorbed into their lives.  An inner city teacher or counselor must be a social worker as well, even though they are not really trained for this. When you are working with children who have been severely traumatized, even once, much less repeatedly, their lives outside of school become part of your world.

If politicians and voters want to understand the unrest and feelings of abandonment and hopelessness that plague the poor in our country, I suggest they become teachers in the disadvantaged communities of America.  This is not to say that everyone should be a community activist — although I think some neighborhoods need exactly that kind of attention and assistance, but that those who think they know what people’s lives are like, should actually immerse themselves in the community first.  The easiest way to do this, is to just sit in a classroom for one year. Just sit and observe. I assure you, they will understand when emerging from that environment. Perhaps with hardened hearts, unmoved, but at least with first-hand knowledge of what is really going on.


In a sense, anyone who has the power to influence the policies that affect an entire nation, needs to be a cultural anthropologist first.  The current theory of trickle-down economics is severely flawed.  But how would you know, if all you do is ‘think’ about the issues involved, manipulate algorithms and discuss among your peers the notions of what ‘should’ be, rather than what actually is.

I found that I had a hard time extracting myself from their world, while these children were my daily companions. I literally brought them with me to the sorority whenever I could, to get them decent meals and I will give my sisters credit, they welcomed these impoverished and traumatized kids without hesitation.  Of course, the problem was, I returned to my life after college and the children returned to theirs.  It almost broke my heart and was so dramatic a realization for me, that I decided I was not really ready at 21, maturationally, to be a special ed teacher, after all. My mother at 20 was far more emotionally intelligent than I was even years later.

So, after a soul searching summer taking classes and traveling around, I presented myself to the graduate psych department of my choice one week before the new fall semester was to begin.  As I have mentioned previously in this blog, I am sure the impression I gave was of a bored socialite, looking for a place to land, dabbling in the field before finding a man and escaping into marriage.  In fact, that may have been an unconscious motive on my part.  But somehow, I talked the head of the department — famous, activist, brilliant psychologist, scientist, probably a socialist too, into taking a chance on me.  I am eternally grateful that he, in a moment of pique, brought me on board, much to the consternation of every other male faculty member there.


When you are in a good doctoral program, your time is no longer your own.  For that entire time period, I lived for the degree, around the clock.  I stopped watching any television — in fact, I didn’t have a set in my apartment.  My days were buried in work, classes, the library (where I had my own small room, so I could lock up my research materials and those from the library itself, many of which were not available in the stacks) until I had a viable and accepted research topic.  That, as any doctoral candidate knows, is the hardest part of the entire process: having your topic approved.  It was a turning point in my life, as some people labor for years in a “maintaining matriculation” limbo, waiting to achieve that make-it-or-break-it benchmark.  While I was doing my work, I taught as an instructor in the US and as an Assistant Professor in Latin America, where I went to do some of the dissertation research itself. Along the way, I got an MS in social psychology, which enabled me to capitalize on my love of travel and foreign cultures.   As in everything I do, I was 110% committed to the fields I was in, the people I hoped to understand and ultimately help, and the process of getting a doctorate itself.

Last Sunday, I happened to be watching Fareed Zakaria interviewing Ray Dalio, who oversees the world’s largest hedge fund at 160 billion dollars. At one point Zakaria asked Dalio how he achieved the pinnacle of his field as a financial genius.  His answer was interesting.  He said, the secret was not in what he knew, but in how he deals with what he doesn’t know.  Hearing that, I immediately recognized that the key to the ultimate reward of getting a PhD or a PsyD is the mental training and rigorous organizational demands upon your time that this system confers.  To this day, I use every one of the skills I developed during that training period.  They enable me to pick up and master almost anything I must learn and do. It gave me discipline of every kind, as it was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting.


While I was doing my research for the final dissertation, I lived among some of the poorest, most forgotten people on earth.  When we merely visit a country as tourists, we rarely have a chance to truly step out of our American bubble, and know the people of that country or culture.  I saw this over and over again.  While I was living in S. America, my mother came down with a group of educators, including a school psychologist who was a good friend as well as employee/colleague.  They drove me crazy.  The friend had been all over the world, so my mother naturally deferred to her in all decisions.  That meant that they did the typical tourist things, taking in the boilerplate, what I call American Express tour: canned restaurants, shops, sites, attractions that provide kickbacks to the tour guide.  I could not convince them to come to the places I knew, from having actually lived there, instead.

No one can truly understand the reality of poverty until they have lived it, in my opinion. My ideas about it today are not born merely of library time, or sitting around imagining how the world ‘should’ work. I deliberately put myself in those places so I would know them viscerally as well as intellectually.  If I want my purpose on earth to make the world a better place for as many people as I can, I can’t see any better way.


My so-called ‘soft’ (uh, compassionate?), progressive approach to life came from being steeped in the gritty reality of life at the bottom. I was also growing up in one of the most diverse, both economically and culturally, cities in the world, spending time in the slums along with the country clubs.  Once I did my own work as the guest of these people, most of them people of color and from other countries, I had hands-on vivid experience of what life is like for them on a daily basis.  I didn’t sit somewhere, observing from a safe perch, second-guessing their desperation, violence, misery, crushed hopes, and heart-wrenching aspirations.  I was there in the thick of it, trying to justify the system that keeps them dependent, distracted just trying to survive, making them promises that are repeatedly broken, while they watch those more fortunate live the American dream, so hard for them to imagine, let alone achieve.

Graduate school redesigned my mental architecture. Not only was I learning a specific field and subject matter in depth, including my dissertation research topic and all the methods for carrying it out, I was learning how to study what I didn’t know. It is impossible to know everything, as I am sure we would all agree. There may have been a time when you went to school and learned whatever the basics were considered to be.  But now those basics fill zettabytes of chip space. You don’t need to know any facts, per se, you don’t need to memorize (it wouldn’t hurt to know your times tables, just saying …).  What is vital, is to understand how to approach that which you don’t know, and understand it. And in the case of all this injustice, it gave me the courage and tools to do something useful with my life, to unpack and deal with problems calmly, analytically, and productively.


I learned so many other tangential things, too numerous to list here, like thorough and neat, organized note-taking as fast as some people write short-hand (using speed writing); being even more orderly than I was previously; thorough; questioning; and dedicated to the ultra fine sieve of proven, hard, objective evidence. I learned what the true meaning of scientific inquiry was and how to apply the method and paradigms in an array of fields to every human question and problem, not just my field. Most importantly, it taught me to be fearless about change, the unknown, learning new skills, getting out of my wheelhouse and leaping into the new, different and difficult. I have also used the tests and verification systems I learned there, to evaluate the seemingly endless instream of information and conflicting messages that we are now bombarded with daily in what could otherwise seem to be a chaotic and undiscernible world, to winnow the wheat from the chaff in all things.  It helps me identify solid parcels of truth when they cross my path, as well as the false and ephemeral.

That training stimulated my lifelong excitement about the vast array of human disciplines and lines of inquiry that change, emerge and proliferate every single day.  That foundation has been my bedrock, giving me the courage and even patience to deal with the staggering number of problems and setbacks that we all face in life as individuals and as a species. It was a practical training that I have applied to every single thing I have done from that time to this. It was not an ‘elite’, ivory tower wasted experience.

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Somehow too, it bolstered the moral maturity that eventually comes with age and experience, to work under almost any conditions and not shrink or become an emotional amoeba. I don’t know what I would have been without it.

Images: Beth Byrnes, UCLA


15 Comments on “PsychD”

  1. Yes. Yes to all of this.

    We are so quick to judge the situations/actions of our fellow humans without the least inclination to understanding where they are coming from. It distresses me greatly to see ignorant comments about the reactive responses to so many of the things that are happening with increasing frequency these days (although the frequency hasn’t likely changed- I think you’re absolutely correct that we are just seeing it more- now that everyone walks around with a camera on their person).

    While I make no claims to any in-depth knowledge of psychology (although the psychology of religion was one arm of my interdisciplinary studies- as was the anthropology of religion), I have spent most of my adult life studying people as well- from the perspective of how we create our narratives- and how those stories shape and define our cultures and societies.

    I’m more of an ‘arm-chair’ academic than you have been- and how I envy you your experiences- but my work and my involvement with different communities has served reinforce my awareness of the importance of listening and learning about those things ‘I don’t know’- as you stated so wonderfully- including the reality that my experiences and intersections (white, middle class, urban, educated, straight, female…) make it impossible to understand the reality of the experiences and intersections of others if we refuse to REALLY pay attention to them.

    We are so polarized by our ridiculous- and, usually, binary- constructs, that we impose our own Sitz im Leben on everything we see. This lack of acknowledgement of our context- and the biases of our ‘situations in life’ or ‘starting places’- makes true understanding impossible.

    And if we don’t even TRY to understand then we really don’t have ANY right or justification to be second-guessing the actions of others.

    Thank you, Beth. For so wonderfully illustrating both the incredible value- and transferable skill set- that can come with the opportunity for higher education (in whatever form or discipline), and the fact that in the absence of people who truly see that value, the rush to judgement/condemnation has become epidemic. xo


    • I know that you of all people will understand everything about this process, Cole, as you did it yourself in an exciting field (wish I had thought of doing history instead of psych, for so many reasons) and we have such similar views.

      In fact, I maintain that all of us who went through this would be predicted to have these same categories of interest and approach.

      For me the key is: truth tested by evidence. That is why when I read the nonsense most people craft out of their own heads like Athena leaping from the pate of Zeus, I dismiss most of it. Where was their rigorous testing, either analytically or experimentally before they came up with this? That is why I won’t be reading David Brooks’ book. Just another long editorial based on what? What he likes.

      Psychology was probably not the smartest choice for someone as sensitive as I am. Somehow those who do best in these fields are empathic without being too vulnerable. I wish I had picked history instead. Then I would not have had to go anywhere but to museums and libraries. It would have been far less stressful.

      Anyway, regardless of the field, the exercise in rigour is the important thing as you know better than any of us. Then we can take that robust device on the road and apply it for the rest of our lives.

      How I wish those who are down on academia and intelligence knew that it is like a brain decathalon. Then they wouldn’t spew as much nonsense, or believe it when others do.

      You are a treasure, Cole! I think (oops, Freudian slip, LOL) NO! Thank the gods for you. xx

      Liked by 1 person

    • Let me hasten to add, as I didn’t do it properly in the first place, I respect and admire research and that very ivory tower that some people have imputed to all progressive notions. In fact, at school, we were told that humanity needs the ivory tower thinker because tomorrow’s problems will not come from today’s realities. Thinkers have imagination.

      But first they must have rigorous training in thinking and analyzing and people like David Brooks, do not display that foundation, imho. I inadvertently gave the impression that the only people who can opine are those in the field. That was poorly expressed. I was thinking specifically of our hard-hearted politicos.

      The thinker him or herself is the key — what approach do they take to the world: real or ideal? And whose ideal? With what underlying agenda or biases? That is what I really meant. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

      • I obviously read enough of your thoughts that I saw no lack of clarity in your comment 😉

        From the little I’ve read/seen of Brooks, he can’t claim that same discipline of imagination combined with studied and trained thinking/analysis. To say that he’s all over the place is understating the case.

        Having said that, I think a big part of our problem- on a societal, political and educational level- is an insistence on ‘specialization’. We can- and do- carry the concept too far- to the extent that ‘generalists’ are disdained as dilettantes or jacks of all trades- and therefore master at none.

        Knowing a bit about a lot of things has its dangers. But we should be encouraging the acquisition of deepest possible knowledge about a diversity of things wherever possible.

        ‘Real’ approaches should be multi-faceted- with an acknowledgement of context and perspective and the best possible understanding of the wider picture as possible.

        I was extremely fortunate in that I had teachers who imparted such lessons. Just one reason among many that justifies my decision to pursue my PhD.

        Happy weekend! It’s (finally!) 20 degrees (Celsius) here! Patio time! xo


        • (For whatever reason, I cannot ‘like’ comments on my own page. Have to figure that one out!)

          I agree with that 100%. I probably could have had a far more general training, as long is it was exacting, and still done every single thing I have done in my life and perhaps better.

          Luckily I had a liberal arts secondary education. We need that! I was just so afraid of not being trained for anything but high school teaching (now that sounds fine with me, actually – depending on the high school …) that I went overboard trying to define myself very narrowly.

          It worked anyway, but I wonder how much I wasted taking such technically minute courses.

          Anyway, when I hear Brooks telling the world how to be a better person, it raises my ire. What makes him think he is in a position to instruct us on goodness? He was for that abominable Iraq war — how ‘good’ was his thinking there?

          OK, I am starting to rant.

          Glad your weather is good. A pipe just burst in our ceiling on a hot day, so you can imagine our atmosphere here: steamy!


          Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Everybody has one… « colemining

  3. I feel your view about politicians and those who espouse wisdom, must be like Gandhi or Mother Teresa to be worthy of their being listened to. I am one who believes words must be boosted and supported by actions. Your mother sounds outstanding and a lovely, woman with a ‘force to reckon with’ spirit. I am sure I could not have accomplished in my various jobs, what she was doing at age 20!
    The way you shared your knowledge, grown and evolving personhood, Beth, is touching. I feel you were so special, getting to really care, trying to make a difference by learning the background of the inner city young women you met.
    I feel that it means so much to me, to meet people who have been involved in a more up close and personal relationship, no matter what their job or position in the world may be, with people. Getting to know people one at a time reminds me of the deep message of Desiderata, Beth. Every one has their story to tell, taking the time to listen makes you a more meaningful person. Loved this post, my friend!


  4. What I love about you Robin, is your ability to bring a new angle to a topic and one I hadn’t thought of (Cole does this all the time, too).

    If I understand your point, it would bring in the perspective of a Mother Theresa or Gandhi, definitely in terms of their first hand experience with poverty and suffering. I have been to India and the level of deprivation among the untouchables there is beyond our American imaginations. Stepping off the plane in Bombay (not the poorest area either) was like being in a movie. Even though I had been to the poorest parts of the US and South America, and even North Africa, I had never seen the level of suffering that I saw in India. It wouldn’t hurt if our leaders heeded the message of both those amazing people. Schweitzer was another one.

    But, no, I don’t expect politicians to be saints. What I do expect is those who turn a blind eye on human misery to have a good reason for doing so. Clearly, the saints of this world do not seek public office. Eleanor Roosevelt comes to mind.

    But, people like David Brooks dictate their points of view, which are often based on little more than debunked theorizing. In his case, he subscribes to the unscholarly, unscientific, unproven Territorial Imperative view that is almost social Darwinism. He didn’t do his homework. In the social sciences that poorly constructed, amateurish theory was discredited almost as soon as it was published. David Brooks may be among the best of the lot of conservatives who don’t trust science (and don’t understand it), who treat speculation as fact, and are fairly arrogant about it too.

    I do think Brooks asks the right question about where we put our emphasis: should it be on accumulating things and getting ahead of others or should it be on making a positive, concrete contribution to the world. I think the latter is clearly the preferred emphasis. I just don’t think he is the best guy to answer his question.

    I found out that I am no Mother Theresa. I mistakenly thought I could do what my mother did, easily. She is a truly warm and giving person who is also strong. I am just not like that sufficiently to have continued studying and doing what I set out to, at the beginning.

    Nonetheless, it taught me to be humble and sympathetic to others and their shortcomings as well as needs. I don’t see the poor as lazy and on the public dole, for example, because that is not what I observed when I lived with them.

    Anyway, as you can see, this is one of my passions, so I tend to talk too much!

    Thank you for plowing through another one of my wordy posts, thinking about it and contributing in such an intelligent and kind way.

    I am always so happy when you are here. 😀 ❤


    • Thank you, Beth for reading this rushed response to a complicated subject matter! I was running out of time (library closing) and did not proof read my comments. I am always wondering if it is okay to speak ‘off the cuff,’ so I do plow through my own way of expressing things. Leaving parts which do open questions, more than meeting the answers or how I wished to tell my thoughts.

      Thanks for understanding that I meant to list people who gave of themselves not as ‘saints’ but as ‘hands-on’ participants in the world. If one is going to espouse as David Brooks was doing, I would hope to see that he has actually experienced being around poverty and in impoverished neighborhoods. I don’t know much about him, so may be going from my ‘feelings’ from what I read of your life, your mother’s and how you were explaining his
      In my last part of my response, I tried to encompass all who do their small part in the world. Trying to help others sometimes with basic needs like food, clothing and shelter donations or with teaching which is a longer, more extended gift. I also see the validity in those who are researchers and developers who help to solve economic problems or invent ways to turn waste water into clean water. (I love this project!)
      All ways of trying to help are valid and meaningful. I think those who have fantastic eulogies, long lines of people to come and see them have touched so many lives. But those who have smaller lines, less people at their funerals, but real tears and remorse from losing a special person are still valuable if they touched ‘one life.’ Hugs and smiles, Robin


      • Please do always feel free to speak off the cuff. Otherwise, we will both feel we have to say everything perfectly, which I am far from capable of, especially as I get older, LOL. I tend to be blunt more than I mean to these days.

        I think the little things that people do to help are very important too. It is easy to think that only big actions and programs will make a difference. Voting is important. I try to study each candidate before making a decision. Contributing to worthwhile causes is too, even though it may just be a little bit.

        I try to shop at Mom and Pop stores, when I can avoid the big boxes or chains. I recyle, I compost, I rescue animals — I am sure all good people do all this and more. Even the smallest bit of caring makes a difference in this harried world.

        I understood you Robin and it seems you understand me.

        Thank you so much for your thoughtfulness, alwasy.


  5. Aw Beth, I need to meet you! The path you describe to becoming makes me know I’d love you from the outset. How difficult it is to witness social deprivation firsthand and not let it disable you. Your mother sounds like an incredible force for good. As do you. Bless the world for minds and hearts such as yours. Our paths may all have varied in circumstance but not in substance. One day may they cross.


    • Thank you so much, Anne-Marie for understanding this little hair-letting-down piece. I needed to share this background so those who come here and dismiss me as a leftist, will at least understand what led me to this point.

      I would love the group of us who are sympathetic souls here to meet, someday. You were fortunate to get together with Cole.

      I would be happy to meet others in this community who see things from a different viewpoint and understand how they arrived at it. I truly don’t understand indifference or callousness.

      Thank you as well for the kind words about my mother. My English grandmother was just the same, but without the education. She was a lovely woman who raised lovely children, kind, good, smart. I owe that line of women (and my great-grandmother) such a debt of gratitude for having raised us with such kindness and understanding.

      Liked by 1 person

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