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Excerpted from

Soul of Adulthood: Opening the Doors...

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While each of us grapples with layers of meaning inside of us, there are also parallel struggles going on in the broader world outside. The two are obviously related because our political and historical dramas are reflections of the myriad layers of our individual longings as they emerge, express themselves and collide with one another. Whatever is in our hearts gets projected out onto our leaders, and conversely, our leaders find themselves in power at least in part because they have found a way to resonate with our longings. So when john F. Kennedy gave his electrifying inaugural address in 1961, he put some of us in a bind. A new leader carries into power all of the hopes, dreams and anxieties of the people whom he leads, and many people have high hopes that their new leader will do something for them to make their lives better. But there he was telling us not how he was going to improve America, but how we could improve America by taking responsibility for it ourselves.

It was a brilliantly hypnotic remark and many of us responded, carried along by our enchantment with his public image. Kennedy was energetic, sophisticated, charming, detached and intellectual, and thus tapped directly into the spirit of an America ready for the new era of media-dominated politics. As there are many layers to the soul of an individual, nations have many-layered souls, too. At one level it didn't matter if he was a womanizer or if his physical health was bad, because we didn't want or need to know these things about him at the time. It would have hurt too much to know. We were not only in an age of cold war, detente and space races, but also an age of innocence and naiveté, at least on the conscious plane.

As we get ready to enter the 21st century, many feel that our country has gone to hell in a handbasket, and at a very superficial level that may be true. The world seems darker, more complicated and more anxiety-ridden today than it did in the early 1960s. Over the past 30 years, there have been countless dialectical struggles over civil rights, economics, communism versus capitalism, women's rights, rights of the poor and homeless, and many others. We have battled in Congress, in the streets, in our bedrooms and boardrooms, and some would say that all we have to show for it is a high divorce rate and a lot of latchkey children waiting at home for their single parent to return from work at the end of a long day.

But that gloomily oversimplified analysis is probably just as inaccurate as was our naiveté in the 1960s - things are different, not necessarily worse. Each generation appears to have its particular struggles that must be played out. Today, some social critics suggest that we are engaged in a national struggle between victim and perpetrator. We have analyzed these concepts back and forth on television talk shows for so many years now we seem to be spinning inside a maelstrom of confused finger-pointing. Who can tell the good guys from the bad guys anymore? Everything has become so muddy and relative that murderers go free because juries feel sorry for them, and people don't know if their memories are real, imagined or simply there by a therapist's suggestion. We seem to have lost both our moral compass and our sense of personal accountability.

Charles Sykes makes a compelling case for his belief that we have steered a course into the treacherous waters of victimism - a mindset in which each of us sees himself as a victim of someone else's offenses. Rather than accepting that life doesn't always work out the way we would like, we now file lawsuits as easily as we change disposable razors. If we are unhappy, then somebody else must be to blame. After all, this is America the land of entitlement, in which we now only ask what our country can do for us. If Sykes' thesis is correct, then it follows that no matter what the real cause of our misery may be, there must be someone who can be made to pay for it.

We suspect that Sykes' book may be reviled by many people who only see centuries of social injustice needing to be rectified. However, he asserts quite strongly that victims of abuse and neglect have every right to be respected for their victim status and to get the help that they need to move beyond it. The emotions surrounding victimization in America appear so powerful, so unconscious and so deep that many people don't hear that part of his message. They hear the word "victimism" and become outraged. But as psychologists who work daily with victims of childhood trauma, we cannot ignore the fact that when victimhood becomes institutionalized, victims have little choice but to remain victims. Over the years, we have learned a very difficult truth-that if one is to stop being victimized in the future he must first face the fact of his victimhood, work through the pain of the trauma, and then take responsibility for his life in the present. In simpler terms, he must first heal the old wounds and then learn how to become an adult.

Inside the Victim Role

As annoying as the debate about political correctness may sometimes be, it isn't trivial. Words are one of our primary tools to maintain connection with each other, and they are in constant social evolution. In the 1950s it was Freudian-chic to know that human beings react strongly to the word "mother." Mothers are so important in our early development that no matter what kind of relationship we have with them our reactions will be marked. The word "death" has similar emotional richness for many, as do the words "earthquake" and "tornado." Words are symbols for ideas, events, things and feelings that have meaning for us, great or small; lately, the word "victim" has gained considerable emotional power in American society.

A woman we knew believed that if she admitted she was a victim of something she would dissolve into a puddle of shame. This reaction to the word often signals our fear of admitting our limitations, which is a formidable limitation in itself. At the other extreme is a man who believed that unless society legally acknowledged his victimhood by requiring payment of some sort, he would be trapped in it for all eternity, never to be happy or fulfilled, which is also a formidable trap in itself.

Tags: Personal Growth