Marking the official start of the new academic year, this timeless Wheaton tradition was held outdoors on the Dimple for the first time to accommodate a larger crowd in a safer environment to lessen the potential impact of COVID-19. The Opening Convocation keynote address, titled “The Things We Can,” was delivered by Associate Professor of Psychology Christina Riggs Romaine. Following is a written version of her remarks.
The Things We Can
By Christina Riggs Romaine, Ph.D.
“I think there may be a helpful principle here for us as we head into the fall semester in these current times. What would it mean for us to pay attention to the things we can do, or control or influence, in all the complexity of real life?”
I appreciate that kind introduction from Provost Ghadessi. In fairness, I should note that academic introductions are a bit like Instagram, they’re a highlight reel. If they were based on most prominent traits, mine would have to note that I am, at heart, a real control freak. I love order and clarity. That trait has left me rather frazzled for the past 18 months as a global pandemic unfolded, and it’s what helps me do good research.
As a psychologist, what I research are problems facing youth and the juvenile justice system. One area I study is “risk” because there has always been this tricky question plaguing the juvenile justice system: Who should we really be worried about? We know that breaking the law in adolescence is normative, most people do at some point. So, how do we know who is going to commit more crimes and be a danger to their community, and who is going to grow up and get less impulsive and not? At first, we focused on the problem things that predict bad outcomes—like, whether the person has been violent before, or how young they were the first time they were violent. These things do predict risk for future violence and breaking the law, but here’s the thing—short of inventing a time machine—I can’t change them. There’s nothing I or the person can do. So, the field has shifted to consider things that can change or be influenced. This means paying attention to factors like: Do you have caring adults in your life? Are you addicted to a substance? Or, have pressing financial needs?—things that can change over time. And it works. We can better tell who’s a risk and it gives us something to do.
One of my favorite things I get to do is work with courts, probation officers and therapists as they learn to use special tools that help them focus on the things we can do that can change. The work is messy and hard, because changing how people think and systems work is hard, but it’s so worth it. Tons of data have shown, for youth in juvenile justice, focusing on what we can do helps.
I think there may be a helpful principle here for us as we head into the fall semester in these current times. What would it mean for us to pay attention to the things we can do, or control or influence, in all the complexity of real life?
Now, I have to be very clear here. I am in no way suggesting a blindly optimistic approach to life, pretending everything is fine and ignoring problems. That is dealing with the world as we wish it to be, and not how it is. And here is the thing: sometimes reality is truly terrible. Global pandemics wreck our ways of being together—and not all of us bear that impact equally. There is nothing fair about it. People we love, people we are, get terrible diseases, things happen and loss is real and sometimes it is truly terrible. Nothing I know as a psychologist tells me that denying that reality is helpful. Quite the opposite in fact, social scientists have a name for that—toxic positivity. Forcing people to look on the bright side and put a positive spin on things—it ignores real harms and silences the person who experienced it, leaving them less able to process what has occurred.
Instead of denying the reality of the bad and unwanted, what we can do is show up. When researchers interviewed all kinds of people about what built trust in their relationship, what consistently came up in the top 3 responses: showing up at funerals. It does not take away the loss, and it matters. Researchers call it a “collective assembly”—when we come together and experience together. It increases our sense of meaning and decreases loneliness. It’s why we hold vigils and bear witness together when tragedy strikes. And it doesn’t have to be around something hard or sad, it could be a concert. It could be a ceremony like this one, marking a milestone—the start of a new journey for our first years and those on campus for the first time, and the start of your last capstone year, for you seniors.
Marking it together is important. We are truly social creatures—we need each other and affect each other in these crazy unconscious and physiological ways.
My favorite example of this plays out most evenings in my living room with my mom. My mom is a rebel and a force in her own 1960’s Connecticut, prim-and-proper way. I adore her. And I’ve noticed if she yawns, I yawn because yawning is socially contagious. Just me talking about it is making some of you yawn. But what’s really amazing: it’s more contagious from people we are closer to. And yawns aren’t the only example. Social connection and wanted physical touch affects our oxytocin and neurotransmitters, helping us manage stress and improving mood. Social isolation is associated with inflammation that can cause a host of physical health problems. We affect one another at every level, and how we respond, the care we give to those around us, even strangers in those passing moments, that is something we can do, no matter what else happens around us.
We can choose how we see the reality we’re in. This is another lesson I learned from my mom. I remember a moment in the car when I realized she had no idea how to get home. We were lost in an era before cell phones or GPS. We sat at an intersection. Mom picked a direction and declared, “It’s an adventure,” and off we went. Now I grew up in a rural corner of Indiana with endless cornfields that all look alike and miles between any distinguishing features. But my mom chose to see it as an adventure and not a disaster. Either way, we were going to be driving through the fields for some time. But that time is far less grueling, and maybe even fun, when it’s an adventure.
How we categorize or label things—adventure or disaster—has a huge influence on how we feel and experience them. We learn our categories and concepts socially, and they affect our actual perceptions. When you see a rainbow in nature it’s a continuum of light. We see bands of color because we have concepts for red and yellow, etc. If you grew up speaking a different language with different color words, you would see it differently. We can be intentional about how we choose to see things. An academic example of this would be a low grade on the first assignment this fall. I could see this as “I’m terrible at this subject and am going to fail this class,” or I could see it as “well, I have not figured this out yet.” The second leaves me with something I can do: I can figure it out, ask some questions, prepare differently. Suddenly, I have options.
Now, my skeptics out there are saying, yeah, but I would still feel terrible. If this really mattered to me—if it was something I really cared about, a job I really wanted and didn’t get—the feelings, the tightness in my chest and lump of disappointment, I would still feel. And that may be. People who study emotions find we tend to interpret emotions as real, and fairly all-encompassing and permanent. Like, rejected is who I am now and who I shall remain. But it’s not true. For all kinds of physiological and social reasons, things change. Keeping that in mind can help us be more agile in how we respond to our emotions. If we treat our emotions like road signs we pass on the highway, then we can get curious. What is this telling me? Sometimes it’s telling me something useful, something that helps me survive or leave a dangerous situation. Sometimes it gives me a clue what is important to me in a situation, what matters.
Emotional agility, the ability to respond flexibly, it allows us to get curious and opens up some space to decide what to do and how. It makes some space for the and. Nearly every situation, every person, is complicated. Multiple things are true at the same time. If our emotions are road signs along the journey—and not the whole experience—we can make some space to see all the things. The “and.” Some situations may be terrible at this time. And also full of gorgeous moments of joy. When so many things are out of control—viruses, quarantines—that space to see the and can make all the difference.
My family is currently living fully in the and as my amazing adventurous mother, who could make anything and used to sew tiny dresses for my Barbie dolls, now struggles to lift a fork. She is deep into a long battle with para supranuclear palsy. It’s in the category of diseases you never want to have with Parkinsons and other neurodegenerative disorders. It is terrible in ways I could never have even imagined to worry about. It breaks my heart to see how it impacts her. There is so much that none of us can control.
And there are moments of incandescent, sparkling joy—moments we can miss if we haven’t practiced and made space to see, moments when my mom’s eyes light up as her beloved granddaughters tell her about their adventures and kiss her goodnight. And wicked peals of laughter as she sees my girls be feisty and occasionally oppositional, in ways she knows I totally had coming to me.
Life is all the things, my friends. Often at the same time.
I do not know what fall of 2021 shall hold for us. If I could control it, believe me, I would. So, while all that is out of control is and remains, I stand here with you. At the start of your year. Filled with hope and excitement because there is strength in community, in doing this together. We can and will show up for each other. We can determine how we see the situations that arise. We can live in the “and” of it all together. So, I welcome you back. And invite you to join me in the adventure.
 See Emotional Agility by Susan B. David, or listen to her discuss the idea here:
 See Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown
 See How Emotions are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett