All posts by Hollis Easter

Six Thinking Hats at the Hotline

How well do you think?

I’m not talking about your intelligence—I’m asking about the way you use your intelligence. Are you getting the most out of it? How can you tell?

Traditional schooling often models thought processes within specific disciplines but does little to address the thinking approach itself. We’re taught facts and techniques for doing things by thinking, but the thinking process itself often lurks out of view, seen only by the shadow it casts.

Edward de Bono has spent a career trying to fix that. He’s written lots of books about how to think more clearly, usefully, and intentionally; I’ve been using one of them, Six Thinking Hats, in teaching crisis hotline workers this spring. It’s a simple visual metaphor for making sure that we include different types of thinking in our processes and then getting people to commit to using them.

The book is well worth reading in its own right, but if you’d like a quick reference or startup guide, Martha Walker’s excellent guide is available through Virginia Cooperative Extension. I’ve used Martha’s guide in teaching my hotline volunteers and staff.

Playing roles makes us stronger

De Bono argues that people often aren’t willing to engage in certain kinds of thinking because they’re afraid of what those thoughts will say about them. Nobody wants to be the negative person who’s always seeing problems, and nobody wants to be the naïve positive Pollyanna either. We’re humans, and we’re concerned about what others think of us. When thinking in groups, it’s hard to get away from this basic truth: we often care more about others’ opinions than about what we’re working on. This makes it risky to say what we really think.

De Bono’s approach is to name the different kinds of thinking (he calls them different Thinking Hats) and ask people to step into “playing the role” of that Hat for a while. He points out that, in theater, prestige comes from playing the role really well—whether it’s a wicked witch or a lovesick teenager or an awkward professor or a heartthrob. So in the Six Thinking Hats approach, you might relax into playing the White Hat (facts and data) role, comfortable in your clear (though restricted) mission, and be able to let go of the social concerns because you’re just playing a role.

I think he’s really onto something with naming and talking about these social concerns. We are social animals. Since reading Six Thinking Hats, I’ve been really paying attention to the group dynamics in thinking processes, and I’m continually seeing people hamstringing their own thinking abilities because they get too wrapped up in worrying what others think. The roles—the Thinking Hats—shield the wearers from judgment, and that makes us all stronger.

The Six Thinking Hats

The Hats can be a little hard to see in the abstract, but bear with me. It’ll get clearer. For a longer description of the Hats, refer to Martha Walker’s guide or the book.

White Hat

White Hat thinking is concerned with facts, figures, and verifiable statements. It doesn’t care what those facts mean; interpretation belongs to other Hats. Judgment and conclusion belong elsewhere; clarity of perception is key here.

On the hotline, White Hat often relates to the details and available options in a caller’s situation. What has the caller already tried? What relationships exist? What bridges have been burned? What are the caller’s preferences?

Remember that White Hat needs things to be verifiably true and accurate. So White Hat won’t say “the caller can’t get to Canton to register for DSS help“, because we can’t show that statement is true. White Hat might say, instead, “the caller works in Star Lake from 8am to 6pm every day. Star Lake is 35 miles from Canton. The DSS office in Canton is open from 8am to 4:30pm every day. The caller doesn’t have a car. The caller says that a DSS worker told her that she’d have to come to Canton in person if she was going to apply for help.

(Think of White as the color of purity, of neutrality, of cold reason.)

Red Hat

Red Hat thinking is concerned with emotions and feelings. Unlike White Hat, where everything must be justified, Red Hat never has to justify what it says. Gut reactions are the province of Red Hat: get them out on the table so we can talk about them!

On the hotline, we use a lot of intuition and instinct in helping callers, so that application of Red Hat is pretty obvious, but it can also be useful for “putting ourselves in their shoes” and making sure that we’re giving them a chance to talk about emotion.

Red Hat thinking on the hotline might motivate us to say things like “something’s not right with this caller—I’m worried that she’s in danger” or “this caller seems like an inappropriate sex caller to me. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s there.” An awareness of the need for Red Hat thinking might also lead us to say “I’m glad that you called to ask about these referrals. I’m definitely going to help with those, but first I wanted to check in on how you’re feeling. This sounds tough–how are you bearing up?

(Think of Red as the color of emotions, of love, of anger, of feelings.)

Black Hat

Black Hat thinking sees the negative side of things, the flaws, the risks, the holes, the missing pieces, and the dangers. It clearly discerns what may happen if we try a solution, wonders whether the plan is strong enough, and notices the small problems that may sink the whole ship later on.

It’s easy to see Black Hat thinking as negative in itself, but it isn’t. Black Hat gives us a chance to see problems and fix them before they have a chance to hurt anyone. Alison Green talks about this in her article about conducting “pre-mortems” on a project before starting, to make sure that the team addresses all the problems anyone could see coming. If we refuse to allow Black Hat thinking, we’re likely to trip over obvious, preventable problems later on.

I’ve found it really helpful to have a name for Black Hat thinking because it also helps to shift people when they are getting excessively negative. Saying “I’m hearing a lot of Black Hat; could we hear some more White Hat right now?” is clear and direct, and it doesn’t criticize people—it asks them to shift their behavior.

On the hotline, Black Hat thinking gives us a lot with regard to safety and planning. “What happens to our mobile crisis counselor if she’s in a client’s house and the client pulls a knife on her?” is a critical question to answer, and it’s better to answer it in advance. “This referral plan relies on the caller getting a lot of help from DSS, but what if he’s been sanctioned and doesn’t have access to that? We should look into other options.” Black Hat helps us make our plans strong by seeing how they’re likely to fail.

(Think of Black as the color of negativity, of absence, of darkness, of night.)

Yellow Hat

Yellow Hat thinking sees the positive, optimistic outcomes by carefully exploring what’s actually possible in a situation. It relies on curiosity and a belief that good things are possible and that we can always find a way to make the situation a little better. Where a Black Hat identifies a problem, the Yellow Hat responds by saying “okay, how can we tweak that so the problem goes away?”

I’ve noticed that new hotline workers tend to dive straight for the Yellow Hat when callers talk about thoughts of suicide. Sure enough, they start saying “but you’ve got to have lots of things to live for!” or “I’m sure things aren’t all that bad!”. The hard truth is that they’re usually right, but that it’s not useful to say so at that point in the conversation. Again, having the Yellow Hat label for talking about that behavior makes teaching about it a lot easier.

It’s genuinely useful to have the Yellow Hat when helping put together a complicated series of connections with other agencies, or when helping a caller to navigate difficult personal relationships or professional challenges. Sometimes callers need us to help them have faith that things can work out, and finding that faith is Yellow Hat territory.

(Think of Yellow as the color of sunlight, of buttery goodness, of daytime, of candles against the dark.)

Green Hat

Green Hat thinking is creative. I call it “third way” thinking, because Green Hat thinking often involves finding a third way out of a difficult situation where it seemed like there were only two options. It’s very easy to get locked into seeing a problem in a particular way because that’s how we saw it first, and it’s the Green Hat’s role to challenge those assumptions and look for additional options.

Green Hats are likely to ask “Okay, we can’t get the caller to Canton in time to register at DSS. DSS needs to verify the caller’s ID; can DSS do a Skype interview and have her show her ID on screen?“. Green Hat thinking gives us “we can’t afford really nice whiteboards, but we can make cheap ones out of bathroom wallboard from Lowe’s, and we’ll replace them if they break. It’ll cost us $14 for 6 of them.

Green Hat says “okay, we know that we’re trying to reach farmers, and that they’re really skeptical of Mental Health People in general. Who do we know that they trust and talk to regularly? We know that the dairy farmers all talk to the guys who drive the milk trucks, and they see them daily. Can we get the milk truck drivers to help us keep an eye out for farmers who are struggling?

(Think of Green as the color of growth, of new leaves, of finding a way, of adapting to your circumstances and fitting them perfectly.)

Blue Hat

Blue Hat thinking focuses on managing the thinking process. In a group discussion, the Blue Hat helps to make sure we’re hearing from all the Hats, helps keep the discussion moving, and has a degree of conversational control.  Blue Hats provide a synoptic view and help everyone use the Six Thinking Hats method effectively. At the end of the process, they’re usually the ones in charge of clarifying what the next actions are.

Blue Hats say things like “I notice we’re hearing a lot of Black Hat right now, and people sound pretty fed up about it. Put on your Red Hats for a second and tell me how you’re feeling.” It’s okay and expected for Blue Hats to direct people to wear different Hats for a while. (And the Blue Hat doesn’t always stay on the same person’s head.)

When working with callers, Blue Hat thinking is what helps us know when to focus on listening to details (White Hat), listening to feelings (Red Hat), thinking up solutions together (Yellow or Green Hat), or dealing with problems (Black Hat). Blue Hat thinking leads us to say “I think I got ahead of you–sounds like you want to say more about what happened with your partner. Tell me more about that.

(Think of Blue as the clear blue sky, of the view you get as a pilot at 30,000 feet, of openness and flow. (Thanks for the suggestions, Jerome!) Think of it as the Hat you wear when you’re doing process control.)


At first blush, the system may feel a little kludgy and silly. It’s important to acknowledge that (Red Hat!) because it’s hard to work on things when emotions are getting in the way. It may be hard to see how the system works together, and it may seem like it’s not really worth all the heavy mental lifting to learn how to use a new system of dubious value (Black Hat!). I encourage you to give it a try anyway, and commit to using it for an hour or two. I think you’ll like it. (Yellow Hat!).

I taught Six Thinking Hats to my new hotline workers this spring, and I was surprised by how quickly we all eased into using the Hats as shorthand for keeping ourselves on track. Before long, we were all wearing the Blue Hat, noticing when we had slipped into one Hat and stayed there for a long time. We directed ourselves to use different Hats to figure things out. The Hat metaphor helped us to notice when our thinking was getting stuck in a rut and, crucially, gave us a tool for getting back on the road. 

It takes some good facilitation at first. Keep reminding people that they’re being asked to play roles, and that they will “win” by playing those roles as fully as possible. Give people permission to try, to struggle, to fail, and to succeed. As with any other change process, it takes a little time.

By now you’ve surely noticed that, in Six Thinking Hats, we’re all expected to wear all the Hats, not just our favorites. If you’re like me, you’ve noticed that you tend to select a few Hats for yourself, leaning away from the others. If so, give yourself a challenge: practice donning the other Hats, too.

Thinking about how we think is really valuable. Intelligence is a fine thing, but it’s wasted unless we direct it down productive channels. Six Thinking Hats helps us see those channels and choose them consciously. Since we’ve started using Six Thinking Hats at Reachout, we’re coming up with good decisions faster than before, and we’re more confident that we’ve seen those decisions from all angles. This method works for us, and I hope it works for you!

Remember to buy de Bono’s book, Six Thinking Hats!


A vein flutters gently,
restive hands searching beneath the blanket then growing still,
silence punctuated by rasping breaths.

When winter brushes the leaves away, 
the bones of the land are all laid out to view,
crags and valleys softened only by snow.
It’s like that here, in this room,
your brow still proud as tired cheeks drift down and away.

Down the hall, a man cries for help.
I wish I could help him, or you.
But perhaps it is enough to have been here, to have said the words of love,
to have given thanks for my life, a river sprung forth from yours.

My earliest memories of you all carry music,
whether it be Beethoven, Bach, Orff, or Schubert.
I remember you pumping the pedals on the old reed organ
so I, legs far too short to reach, could play.

It’s for the conductor to decide how long this fermata will last,
whether a cadenza will be offered, how soon the final barline comes.
But if you listen still, please hear us when we say
that we are grateful, that we are sad, and that we love you very much.
And when it’s time for you to go, go well.

Getting Paid to Write

How is it possible that so much of the ‘content’ we read each day online, so much of what changes and challenges and inspires and enrages and entertains us, is written by people who are paid nothing for their work? Did you know that nobody’s getting paid to write most of what you see on the internet?

As I’ve dug into writing more this year, countless people have suggested that I’ll soon be getting rich. Guest writer gigs, book deals, long hot showers of endless money, all are soon to come! Over and over again, people have asserted two things:

  1. Good writing pays.
  2. My writing is good.

And yet, when you dig, most sites say things like this: “we regret that we are unable to pay people who write content”.

Savor how deliciously passive that statement is.

We regret that we are unable to pay people who write content.

Often, we regret that is omitted, leaving only the simple assertion that the business model relies on a class of workers who are paid nothing. Who, if they were actually considered workers, would probably be illegal because they work at wages far below the legal minimum.

What’s the problem with unpaid writers?

There’s money aplenty flowing through these organizations. Ad revenue, when you have a site that gets a lot of traffic, can be pretty impressive. Membership-supported sites can also rake in a lot of cash. There are expenses, to be sure—but these are businesses, not charities, and it’s safe to assume that they’re making money if they last a few years. AOL paid $315 million for ownership of the Huffington Post in 2011. Yet there’s no money to pay their authors?

I work for an organization that couldn’t survive without volunteers, and I’ve done a lot of volunteering in my life. There’s nothing wrong with doing meaningful work for free, and sometimes it’s a beautiful thing to donate your labor and choose not to be paid.

But I think what chaps my ass is that these organizations exist to sell a product—‘content’—to readers, and secondarily to sell another product—access to those readers—to advertisers and data miners. They’re fundamentally engaged in commerce. They require writers to sign over all publication rights for the work they’re submitting, so the company can resell and republish the work at will. Yet they don’t pay for what they’re selling.

And then they hide that fact. Here’s a question:

How many of the sites you read pay their authors for their work? Do you know? Can you find out?

It’s usually tough to find out. The answer usually lurks in the tall grass of the submissions pages, if you can find those.

I think it’s dishonest. People tell me all the time that I should be making money from writing, and that I should do it for [pick your favorite site]. It’s clear that most folks believe writers for these sites get paid. I think it’s dishonest for the sites to hide the fact that they’re just publishing donated material. The sites should acknowledge the gifts, so that readers can offer gratitude where it’s due.

But they don’t.

And yet we keep writing. We write for free, for the thrill of sharing ideas and passing them to others. Many of us write in hopes that, someday, the money really will materialize. We keep writing, and we keep donating what we create. We hope.

But I’ve also seen people stop writing because the hope dies. It doesn’t pay, and people rarely say “thank you”. We live in a world that measures value in dollars and kudos, and when people offer neither, writers eventually move on to other work. And their ideas disappear.

I find myself not clicking articles people post when I know that they’re hosted on ad-supported sites that still don’t pay their authors. It feels wrong to be complicit in aggregating lucre for those at the top when those at the bottom earn nothing.

There’s a line from John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy that comes to mind. One character, a double agent, ends up saying “I hate America very deeply… the economic repression of the masses, institutionalized. Even Lenin couldn’t have foreseen the extent of that.

I don’t know how we can have an online “content model” that actually pays people for creative work. But I think it has to start with acknowledging the truths about how our present system works.

And the truth is that very few people are getting paid to write.

Grief In The Dark Time Of The Year

The neon sign flashes, all night long, exhorting us to have a Happy Holiday. I’ve wished several dozen people a Happy Solstice today, my words borne across the globe by phone and Facebook. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Good Kwanzaa, Joyous Noël, Happy Hogmanay, Happy New Year.

We are obsessed with happiness, now and always. We are forever telling each other to “have a great day!”. And at the dying of the year, during the longest night, our traditions lead us to wish each other well, as if to stave off sadness with greeting cards and gelt.

I think we’re missing something. Something important.

We fill this season with brightness and lights, stuff it with glitter and tinsel and parties and presents and prayers. Sometimes it seems like every moment is crammed with shining traditions, a candlelit concert, the lights on a Christmas tree, a blazing menorah, a phoenix or a Viking ship aflame. Perhaps it’s in our nature to look toward the light.

And so we shun the darkness. We look away.

We build fires against the night. We battle sorrow with jubilation and parry agony with hope. We protect ourselves against the darkness, armor ourselves against grief, build defenses against despair—and this is good—but still the night remains.

We needn’t run from it.

Many of us are grieving tonight. As the sun fades into memory, other memories return. The voices of loved ones, voices we’ll never hear again, dimly remembered and fading now. The almost-forgotten softness of an old lover’s lips pressing against mine. The agony of injuries, muted now after so many years. Cold comfort that, though better than they were, some wounds will never fully heal. The bitter tastes of injustice, cruelty, and indifference. Harsh words, spoken in rage, that we can never take back. The way despair and depression can blot out even the midday sun.

It’s dark out there. Not everyone can focus on candles and joy and brightness in this season. For many people, the pangs of loss are too recent and too sharp to be ignored. The constant reminders that we all should be joyful, that this is “the most wonderful time”, serve only to make us feel bereft and excluded. We need to start by sitting with the night.

In the long dark time of the year, I think we miss the point if we reach too quickly for the candles, if we run from the darkness and huddle near the fire too soon.

The fire takes its meaning from the blackness it dispels and the shadows it creates.

So let us first embrace the darkness.

Let us meet the grief on its own turf, in the soft blackness of these winter nights. It is right to shiver. Gaze, perhaps flinching a bit, at those parts of ourselves the daylight doesn’t touch. Listen to night sounds, the passing of deer, the way the wind hisses past snowbanks, how the heart can drum so loudly. Taste fear, knowing which of our demons have joined us out here in the dark.

Let us stand for a time, alone and undefended, in the dark and freezing air. Feel the earth hurtling through space as the seasons turn and the year dies. Feel the anger, feel the grief, feel the sorrows we’ve so busily ignored through all the well-lit days this year. Feel the darkness, drink it in, and accept that it travels with us, inside.

On the shortest day of the year, it is right to focus on the night.

Walk among the embers, sit near the coals, and remember why we need light.

And, when it’s time, seek it. Kindle a new flame, giving thanks for both the light and the blackness it dispels. See how much less terror the shadows hold now that we’ve dwelt among them for a while. And then rejoice, giving thanks, as we light more fires and carry them into the birth of a new year. Revel in the twinkle of a Christmas tree, sit close by the woodstove, light the menorah, and keep the lamps trimmed and burning.

Be grateful for songs, for saviors, for all who bring light into this season. And be thankful for the darkness they dispel.

Does Privilege Still Exist In Our Society?


Now can we please stop asking that question and start figuring out what to do about it?

“But I don’t see it…”


“But it’s invisible to me.”


“… what?”


“What do you mean?”




“But doesn’t everyone have a lens through which they see the world, and they’re all different?”


“But what if they insist that this privilege thing exists even though I can’t see it?”


“Why are you telling me I’m a bad person? It’s not my fault I have this ‘privilege’ thing you’re talking about.”


“… what? But you just said…”


“… oh. But why?”


Can we please stop with the specious arguments about whether privilege actually exists? Virtually everyone has some form of privilege. Some of us have a lot more of it than others. We need to be talking about how to put people on fairer footing, and that involves talking—and, yes, arguing—about what that looks like and how to get there.

And the thing is, if you’re arguing that privilege doesn’t exist, you’re pretty much shutting down a lot of other people’s lived experience that it’s real.

Privilege as lenses

To extend this metaphor a little, think of privilege as lenses that color light passing through them, tinting it rose.

If you have a bit of privilege, one corner of your world looks pink and beautiful, but the rest may be pretty drab and tough.

Maybe you get a little privilege from being educated, so the left edge of your vision is pink. You get different privilege from being raised in a society with democratic laws, so that turns the upper-right corner pink. You get a bunch of privilege from being male, and that turns the bottom third of your vision pink. At the end, you see the world through lenses that make it roughly 50% rose-colored, and the rest is the dingy reality.

But still, in these moments, you can look and notice that there are parts of your worldview that are rosy and parts that are not. The edges between those things denote the intersections of different kinds of privilege.

If you don’t see any edges, it’s either because you have so much privilege that everything is rosy, or so little that everything is grey.

People in the first category are pretty much the only ones arguing that privilege doesn’t exist.

So before you insist that we debate whether privilege exists, please ask yourself whether you can see any edges within your worldview, places where you get automatic advantages. If you can see edges, you don’t need to debate whether privilege exists.

And if you genuinely can’t see any unearned advantages that have helped you along the way, please give thanks for the tremendous luck that makes it possible for you to say that. Acknowledge how rare that is, and try to help pull some other folks up to your level.

The CIA Torture Report: Summary of Findings

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released its report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program today. The 525-page report, declassified after being heavily redacted from a 6,200-page classified version, discusses CIA activities between 2001 and 2009.

Remember “enhanced interrogation” and waterboarding and extraordinary rendition and all that? This relates to those.

The report contains an executive summary at the beginning. It’s 19 pages long, and I encourage you to read it. To help spur you to actually read it, I’m quoting (verbatim) its “findings and conclusions” here.

CIA Report: Findings and Conclusions

Everything in this section is quoted from the executive summary. I’m just taking the findings themselves, not the supporting explanations; you’ll need to read the report for those. Where there is emphasis, it is mine, not the report’s.

The Committee makes the following findings and conclusions:

  1. The CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.
  2. The CIA’s justification for the use of its enhanced interrogation techniques rested on inaccurate claims of their effectiveness.
  3. The interrogations of CIA detainees were brutal and far worse than the CIA represented to policymakers and others.
  4. The conditions of confinement for CIA detainees were harsher than the CIA had represented to policymakers and others.
  5. The CIA repeatedly provided inaccurate information to the Department of Justice, impeding a proper legal analysis of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program.
  6. The CIA has actively avoided or impeded congressional oversight of the program.
  7. The CIA impeded effective White House oversight and decision-making.
  8. The CIA’s operation and management of the program complicated, and in some cases impeded, the national security missions of other Executive Branch agencies.
  9. The CIA impeded oversight by the CIA’s Office of Inspector General.
  10. The CIA coordinated the release of classified information to the media, including inaccurate information concerning the effectiveness of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.
  11. The CIA was unprepared as it began operating its Detention and Interrogation Program more than six months after being granted detention authorities.
  12. The CIA’s management and operation of its Detention and Interrogation Program was deeply flawed throughout the program’s duration, particularly so in 2002 and early 2003.
  13. Two contract psychologists devised the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques and played a central role in the operation, assessments, and management of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. By 2005, the CIA had overwhelmingly outsourced operations related to the program.
  14. CIA detainees were subjected to coercive interrogation techniques that had not been approved by the Department of Justice or had not been authorized by CIA Headquarters.
  15. The CIA did not conduct a comprehensive or accurate accounting of the number of individuals it detained, and held individuals who did not meet the legal standard for detention. The CIA’s claims about the number of detainees held and subjected to its enhanced interrogation were inaccurate.
  16. The CIA failed to adequately evaluate the effectiveness of its enhanced interrogation techniques.
  17. The CIA rarely reprimanded or held personnel accountable for serious and significant violations, inappropriate activities, and systemic and individual management failures.
  18. The CIA marginalized and ignored numerous internal critiques, criticisms, and objections concerning the operation and management of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program.
  19. The CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program was inherently unsustainable and had effectively ended by 2006 due to unauthorized press disclosures, reduced cooperation from other nations, and legal and oversight concerns.
  20. The CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program damaged the United States’ standing in the world, and resulted in significant monetary and non-monetary costs.

What now?

So, the Senate committee has issued its findings that this is what happened. Our embassies around the world are tightening security in anticipation of a wave of anti-American rhetoric and attacks in light of what our government did in our names.

I have no idea what we do about this.

How do we hold people accountable? Can we hold people accountable? What are the steps from here? I wish I knew. What do we do?

Protected By The Color Of Our Skin

In my mind, I imagine myself in his shoes, tall, stocky, angry, scared.

I imagine the officers beginning to fly at me, and the feeling of a man on my back, his arm locked around my throat, the elbow flexing, my heartbeats growing louder as he compresses the arteries in my neck.

I know the feeling of asthma from years of suffering with the condition, and I imagine the feeling of trying to draw breath with five bodies lying atop mine, the struggle to open my lungs and draw in air. I can’t. Time draws out like a knife.

I know that feeling. I know the panic that overtakes me every time asthma grips my lungs, when someone’s perfume closes my throat, sabotages my breath, and makes the world go dark. In my mind, I rush for my inhaler out of habit, familiar with this feeling, but I can’t reach it, can’t shake off the officers locking my wrists behind me. I can’t breathe.

And in my mind, I cry out, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”. The officer on my back is still choking me, his bicep flexed and twisting my neck sideways as I try, frantic now, to breathe. In my mind’s eye, I see myself from above, a felled giant covered with bodies, a mountain of flesh and dreams and fear, and I watch myself die.

I watch myself die.

And suddenly, the scene begins to shift. Officers are jumping off of me, my lungs fill with air, the elbow clamped around my throat releases me, and somehow I’m standing again. Time runs swiftly now, in reverse, as we race back to where this all began.

And as I draw breath, shallow but easy, the nightmare begins again. The officers close in, but this time they’re gentler. I end up cuffed but not flattened, still standing as I hear my Miranda rights recited, then pushed into a squad car. I’m trying to figure out why, this time, the nightmare is so much gentler.

I see my face mirrored in the window of the police car, and I figure it out. In this version, I’m wearing my armor, the same armor that protects Darren Wilson, Justin Damico, and Daniel Pantaleo, the armor Eric Garner never got to wear.

I’m protected by the color of my skin.

Why Does Assisted Suicide Bother Us So Much?

I’ve noticed something: people are really conflicted about assisted suicide. And they’re really motivated to do something about it.

There are huge policy debates about it, religious arguments, medical ethics concerns, and a host of people who care so much—both for and against assisted suicide—that they spend their nights and weekends campaigning about it. Most of these people also have strong feelings about regular suicide, but it doesn’t motivate them to organize, march, write letters, and debate the same way assisted suicide does.

What gives?

Why are people so motivated to fight assisted suicide—which kills a relatively small number of people each year—when they don’t act to reduce unassisted suicide?

Much of the recent news has focused on Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act (passed in 1997), since Brittany Maynard died recently in Oregon after attracting a lot of media attention. To hear the news stories, you’d think that Oregonians were dying by the millions. According to Oregon’s official 2013 report, 752 Oregon patients have died since 1997 via assisted suicide. Last year (2013), 71 people in Oregon died by assisted suicide.

Compare that with the national figures for suicide in general, which showed 40,600 deaths by suicide (all forms) in 2012. Nationally, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for Americans.

Oregon’s estimated population in 2013 was 3,930,065. The US population that year was 316,128,839. Scaling the national suicide death rate to Oregon’s population, we would expect Oregon to have 505 suicide deaths in 2013, of which 71 were assisted and 434 were unassisted.

More than six times as many Oregonians killed themselves on their own, without assistance from a physician.

So why are we so much more concerned about assisted suicide? Why does it attract so much public attention and debate when unassisted/regular suicide kills many more people?

Why does assisted suicide upset us so much more than “regular” suicide does?

I have an idea, which I’ll post shortly, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts too. Leave them in the comments!

A Taoist Parable of Elections

Once upon a time, there dwelt a family in a small town in northern New Hampshire. There they lived in community, some recent immigrants and others Mayflower types, farming the thin soil and trying not to get buried in the snow. But it was a good life, even though it was hard, and visitors to Landaff always commented on the tightly-knit village and its friendly people. The family shrugged off these comments with customary mountain skepticism, saying “yeah, maybe…”

One day, the eldest scion announced that he was leaving Landaff. He’d heard the call to ministry, and would leave soon for divinity school. It was nearly time for the harvest, and the family would struggle to get its food into the barns before the snows began to fly. “This is a calamity!”, cried the family. “How could you leave us?” But the son could not be swayed, and soon he left. “This is the worst thing that could happen to us!”, they moaned around the kitchen table. Grandmother said, from her chair in the corner, “yeah, maybe…”

Word got around. People in small towns take care of each other. Before long, there was a knock at the door. A crowd had assembled. Someone came forward, a bit awkwardly, and said, “well, it’s like this. We know you’re short. We’ll help.” Together, they got the family’s harvest into the barns just as the first flakes began drifting down from the mountains. “We are the luckiest people around,” said the family, “to have friends who will help us like this.” Grandma said, “yeah, maybe…”

Later on, a man in Europe capitalized on social tensions and seized power, claiming the arc of history pointed clearly toward his nation’s people on the top. They needed more room to live, and they planned to take it from others. They said “work will make you free”, even as they locked people up and murdered them. World leaders decried that nation’s actions, and people across the planet said it was the worst thing they’d ever heard of. Grandma had died years back, but it had become a tradition for the eldest member of the family to respond with “yeah, maybe…”, so that’s what Grandpa said.

It wasn’t long before nations around the world got involved, and there was a war. A war to stop the atrocities, a war to stop the grab for land. A war to prevent murder. People across the globe signed up to fight. Eventually, they won—and nations agreed to create a global organization in which all countries would be represented, with the express purpose of protecting human rights and preserving peace. People said it was the best thing that had ever happened. Grandpa said, “yeah, maybe…”

You can see where this is going. We have a human tendency to see calamity or jubilation in the events around us, to think that whatever’s happening right now is either the best or worst of all possible worlds, depending on how it fits our views.

This isn’t wrong, but it’s not the only way to look at things.


Yesterday, there was a national election. A lot of people feel its result was cause for celebration; others now cower in fear. Many think we’re finally going to get back on track as a nation, and many more think we’re going to fall off the rails entirely. We’re all right, and we’re all wrong.

I felt that George W. Bush’s policies were disastrous, and that the legal ramifications of his presidency will continue to reverberate for decades. It was the worst thing, so I cheered Barack Obama’s election. A President who shared my values… and who made history by being the first black man elected to that office! The best possible thing.

But Obama’s record has been deeply troubling for me. We’ve seen an expansion of war, a failure to lead on a lot of things that matter to me, and an inability to get much done with a gridlocked Congress. The worst possible thing.

Andrew Cuomo was elected in New York and promptly moved to legalize marriage equality without regard for the gender of the partners. The best possible thing!

Andrew Cuomo has also moved to legalize fracking statewide, and has gone on the record saying that he wants to “bust the monopoly” that public schools have on education. He’s starved our schools, cut funding again and again, violated ethics rules, shut down his own ethics commission when it started investigating him, and done a host of other things that make me furious. The worst possible thing.

But because of Cuomo being in office and doing so much that we, his electorate, hated, we have started to have a real movement toward multiple parties and meaningful choice. I got to vote for Zephyr Teachout in the primary for governor, and she came damn close to winning. I voted for Matt Funiciello in Congress this time. I had the opportunity to vote for candidates who actually shared my values and ideas! The best possible thing!

Last night, people who shared my values got pretty soundly voted out of office around the country. It feels, manifestly, like the worst possible thing.

I’m really concerned about a lot of things in our nation right now. Attacks on women’s sovereignty over their own bodies. The question of how—and even whether!—we should all contribute to educating children. What that education should look like. Fights over whether corporations should be allowed to speak with dollars in the political arena. Our disastrous inaction on climate change that means the planet will burn, and the earth become unlivable, unless we steer a new course. Enshrining one religion in power where the Constitution demands a plurality. There’s a lot to worry about.

But last night’s elections will spur tomorrow’s activists. There’s always more to do, more organizing to do, more direct actions, more change needed. Without a goad, people don’t sign up to do the work. Nobody builds a United Nations unless there’s a world war—and while that doesn’t come close to erasing the bad stuff that happens, it does remind us to keep working. It’s the work we do now that turns disaster into “yeah, maybe…”

So let’s work.

One last thing

Our national flip-flopping of power is a consequence of the two-party system. This bipolarity is caused by the endless swapping of power between Democrats and Republicans. When you only have two choices, you’re either happy with the present regime or you vote for the other side. And eventually it flips, and flips, and flips.

When we have politicians who’ve made a career out of shutting down “the other side”, when it’s a campaign promise to do nothing once elected, we’re never going to fix this within the existing system. It remains an abusive relationship between two embittered fighters.

Voting for Democrats who turn out to be Republicans (I’m looking at you, Cuomo) is heartbreaking. I’m sure it’s the same for people who see their conservative candidates act like liberals. But this problem is largely created by the two-party system because it trains us to think that all of us can have things exactly our own way… about half of the time. And that when we don’t get our own way, we have to seize control again so we can reset things.

There isn’t much place for compromise in that system. And that means that politicians will always focus on undoing what was done before and making it impossible to change back.

I’m tired of that. Are you? Let’s start voting like it, and demanding multiple parties that can actually work together, compromise, and build something that lasts. The best possible thing, from the worst possible thing.

When You Call a Suicide Hotline

The people who work at crisis and suicide hotlines are there because we want to help. I want to show you some of the basics of our approach so you’ll feel more comfortable reaching out and calling us if you need help. I hope that, by giving you a sense of what to expect, I can help you feel safe about calling or referring a friend.

If you’ve ever watched a TV show or movie where someone calls a crisis hotline, you’ve probably gotten a pretty negative idea of what happens when people call us. I’ve seen films where the hotline workers were smoking dope, where they started talking about their own issues, where they called SWAT teams, where they dared callers to “just do it”. All of which tells me: Hollywood doesn’t know very much about crisis hotlines.

So let’s talk about what really happens.

The Bottom Line

We want to listen to your story. We want you to talk about how you’re feeling, because research and experience show that talking really helps. Most of the time, people feel better after talking, and many of them don’t need anything beyond listening.

We won’t tell you what to do. We do a lot of listening. We’ll help you tell your story, we’ll reflect the things we hear, and we’ll listen with intense compassion. But we’re mostly not going to tell you what to do or give you advice unless you ask.

We want to build trust and help you feel safe. A lot of people have concerns about confidentiality, and wonder whether they can trust us with their stories. Please know that, as a field, we take confidentiality and privacy really seriously.

We want you to be safe. If you’re thinking about suicide, we’re going to ask you some frank questions about it. We’ll ask whether you’ve already taken action on your wish to die, whether you have a plan, etc. These questions help us understand you better, which is our main goal.

We prefer talking rather than sending active rescue. Our goal is to support and empower you to choose life. Sometimes, though, callers are struggling so hard that they can’t keep themselves safe long enough to talk. Hotlines have different policies about what to do in this case—what we call “active rescue”—and whether to send rescuers to help keep you safe right now. Whatever the hotline’s policy, I want you to know that the vast majority of suicide calls just involve talking.

We care about you. At my hotline, one of our core values is that nobody should have to suffer alone. Many of us have been through tough times ourselves, and we want to help—even if all you want is someone to listen and someone to care.

What Happens in a Suicide Call

When you call the crisis hotline, we’ll say hello and start listening. We’ll invite you to tell us how you’re doing and what made you call us today.

During this time, we’re trying to establish a rapport with you so you’ll feel comfortable talking with us. We’re also trying to get a sense of how acute your crisis is right now—is it bad enough that you’re thinking about suicide?

If the answer is yes—if you’re thinking of suicide—we’re probably going to ask a few quick questions to ask whether you’re in immediate danger. If there’s a medical emergency, we want to help you deal with that right away. We want to make sure it’s safe to spend some time together, talking about how you’re feeling.

Assuming that you’re not in immediate danger, we’re going to get you talking about how you feel. What’s been happening in your life? What’s brought you to the point of calling a crisis hotline? If you’re thinking about suicide, what’s making you hurt so much right now?

One of the key factors in our training is that we’re not going to try to convince you to be happy. We do believe that most people have reasons for staying alive mixed in among the thoughts of dying, but we’re not going to focus on them right away. We want to hear the hard stuff. We want to give you a chance to talk about why you want to die.

We believe that it’s important to talk directly and openly about thoughts of suicide, and that talking about them lessens their power. We aren’t going to ask you to pretend that you’re not hurting. We’ll ask directly about suicide, and we’ll invite you to talk about why you feel that way.

We’re not going to try to fix you. We’re not going to assume you’re broken. We’re not going to judge you for thinking about suicide. We won’t call it a permanent solution to a temporary problem, and we won’t label you. We’re going to meet you in that dark place and, if you let us, we’ll join you in looking at the tough stuff. You don’t have to deal with it alone.

Often, talking is all people need. Something starts to shift as you get a chance to tell your story and be really heard, and the thoughts of suicide start to recede.

Once you’re starting to feel better, we’ll probably talk about a safety plan for you—people who can help you stay safe, what to do if you start feeling worse, that kind of thing. The goal is to empower you, leave you feeling like you’re in charge, and equip you for staying safe.

If talking isn’t helping, we’ll work together to figure out what else needs to happen. As before, we want to support you in getting whatever help you think you need. Sometimes we’ll offer ideas; other times we’ll help you plan for getting additional help. This is different for each person.

Most of the time, talking is enough. People start to feel like they can carry on for a while longer. Sometimes that’s measured in years; sometimes in hours. We want you to know that you can call us back if you need to. We care about you.

If you’re struggling, I hope you’ll reach out and talk to us.

How to Get in Touch

Many communities have local hotlines: Google for “crisis hotline” or “suicide hotline” with your town or city’s name.

National hotlines:

  • In the USA: you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline free from anywhere at 1-800-273-TALK.
  • In the UK: you can call the Samaritans anytime, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, on 08457 90 90 90.
  • In Scotland: you can call the Breathing Space phoneline, which is available 24 hours at weekends (6pm Friday – 6am Monday), and 6pm – 2am on weekdays (Monday – Thursday), on 0800 83 85 87.

National online chat resources:

Want to read more? Check out my other articles about suicide and crisis hotlines.

Hotlines exist all over the world, and they’re all a little bit different. We’re all here to help you, but specific policies and approaches may differ. The methods I’ve described here are common for suicide hotlines here in the United States, but results do vary. If you’ve called a hotline and found that it didn’t match your needs well, I encourage you to try another!

If you’re struggling, please reach out to one of the resources listed above rather than leaving a comment—I don’t check the comments immediately, and I want you to get help sooner rather than later!