Monday, April 24, 2017

13 Reasons Why, a review through the lens of skills, not judgment

I've been watching 13 Reasons Why on Netflix for the past few weeks and just finished last night. No, I'm not a teenager brimming with angst, but I know what that was like for me. I just kept seeing that series on my home page on Netflix and, while still waiting for Sense8 and House of Cards, I thought I'd give it a try.

As I write this, Don Henley's song "The Heart of the Matter", is playing through my mind. It is a song about forgiveness, and forgiveness to me is the complete surrender of hate and rage for understanding. But as I will show you below, you cannot have understanding without collaboration. And with collaboration comes skill, the kind of skill teens and young adults need to avoid getting to the point where they even begin to contemplate suicide.

I want to use this space here to also say kudos to everyone who made 13 Reasons Why happen. Some of the scenes were quite intimate in nature and required a tremendous amount of trust in each other to perform. This is an exceptional series and worth the time to watch, particularly for anyone with kids entering or already in adolescence. It is a parable of modern times to show us just what kids are facing now with social media, smart phones and school.

I can relate to the characters in 13 Reasons Why because there was a time in my life as a young man, when I wanted to to take my own life. I had a good friend back then who shot that idea down in the most spectacular way, to paraphrase:

"Suicide? That's a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Besides, suicide is the most selfish thing anyone can do. It's a slap in the face to everyone you leave behind."

So from that point on, I decided to live for as long as I possibly can, just to see what happens next. Now I can look back on that time in my life and know that I felt that way because I lacked the skills to cope with life better than I did. Since then, I found resources that taught me the skills I needed to adapt, to change my mind. Everything I have done from that point forward was to see what would happen next.

I watched 13 Reasons Why as an exploration of human behavior. Yes, it is a drama, and yes, there is plenty of drama in the series. For Nic Sheff, one of the writers on the series, it is an exploration into teen life, as he wrote in his editorial article at Vanity Fair:
As soon as I read the pilot for 13 Reasons Why, I immediately knew it was a project I wanted to be involved in. I was struck by how relevant and even necessary a show like this was: offering hope to young people, letting them know that they are not alone—that somebody out there gets them. In 13 Reasons Why, the story of a high-school girl who takes her own life, I saw the opportunity to explore issues of cyberbullying, sexual assault, depression, and what it means to live in a country where women are devalued to the extent that a man who brags about sexually assaulting them can still be elected president. And, beyond all that, I recognized the potential for the show to bravely and unflinchingly explore the realities of suicide for teens and young adults—a topic I felt very strongly about.
Throughout each episode, I watched every human interaction, without judgement. Whenever there was a "f*ck you!" moment, I asked myself if there was an opportunity to teach, an opportunity for collaboration lost. I remembered what I learned from reading books like "The Explosive Child", "Raising Human Beings" and numerous other books over the last 25 years. I watched with interest and noted how quick people were to punish another. "Ew! You remind me of my own shame! Here, let me punish you!" That pretty much sums up every conflict in 13 Reasons Why. Can you hear John Bradshaw calling?

That shame comes from somewhere. With few exceptions, shame is transferred, even inherited, from parent to child. If parents witness their child doing something that reminds them of their own shame, even unconscious shame, then punishment will come, unless the parents are aware of their own shame.

While it is easy to disregard the adults in 13 Reasons Why as they're not central to the plot, I noticed who even showed the slightest interest in collaborating with adults. What I saw was that in homes with abuse, there was little interest or awareness of collaboration as an option to solve problems. Where there was hope and understanding, even reaching out on the part of the parents, there was more of a willingness to talk, to collaborate. This is not a hard and fast rule, this is a tendency of the characters in the series that mirrors life. The adults modeled the skill of collaboration or embraced conflict when they lacked the skill of collaboration.

Hannah Baker is the protagonist in 13 Reasons Why, and like so many other teens and young adults who take their own lives, she died because she lacked the skills to collaborate with others to solve her problems. She tried many times to get help through collaboration, but with a few exceptions, she was surrounded by others who lacked the skills to collaborate. Most of the characters are ready to shoot first and ask questions later, an attribute that is reflected in our country at a personal and national level. Just ask the citizens of any country we're at "war" with now.

13 Reasons Why has generated a resounding response. As the What's On Netflix website observes:
Released in 2007, 13RW is a young adult novel written by Jay Asher. Picked up by Netflix and produced by Selena Gomez, it quickly gained traction become one of Netflix’s most popular series. According to Fizziology, more people tweeted about “13 Reasons Why” during its first week of streaming that any other Netflix show-3,585,110 tweets in total. That’s three times as many mentions as the second most-tweeted show and more than 20 times the tweets of popular shows “Orange is the New Black” and “Master of None.” That’s big.
That kind of response indicates that millions of people identify with the characters in the story. They identify with being abused, being shut out, being withdrawn, being cast off. Without collaboration, its every man for himself, everyone is a free agent in a bag of skin. 13 Reasons Why is not quite Lord of the Flies, but both are cultural examples of how important it is for the older generation to collaborate with the younger generation. If you punish people because they "didn't get it", they won't.

When we hate, we surrender the need to understand. When we punish, we foreclose the need to understand. When we hate, we practice it as a skill, just as we do when we punish. Every minute we spend working on, planning on, or executing punishment is a minute we could have spent understanding another human being. While mired in resentment, we are not reaching out to collaborate with another human being. In resentment, we are drinking poison in isolation while waiting for the other person to die. The skills of human survival are taught, polished and honed in collaboration, not isolation.

As anyone familiar with biology knows, as we adapt to one environment we surrender the ability to thrive in another environment. Just as we cannot defend against all attacks, we cannot thrive in all environments. What makes humans different from all the other animals is our ability to adapt our environment to suit us. I'm not saying that natural selection will reward our ability to adapt our environment to suit us, as climate change is about to show us how much that ability costs, but it is a skill and it takes time to learn and master. Humans are one of the most adaptable species on the planet, but that ability to adapt is limited to skills we confer upon our progeny.

13 Reasons Why is a great illustration as to why I treat everything and everyone with tenderness and care. I do this not because that's how the world is, I do it because that's how I want the world to be.

Everyone I know in my life gets the same treatment. I keep my side of the street as clean as I can. I don't fire back, for they might be giants. I tread lightly wherever I walk and talk. I close doors gently, I don't raise my voice except for imminent danger, I don't break things in anger. I let the feeling pass before I act. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The universe is a reflection of everything that I am thinking and feeling right now. I get to choose what I think and feel because every day is Groundhog Day.

I have two darling little daughters and I was thinking of them when I watched 13 Reasons Why. My kids are young now - a preschooler and a toddler, and someday they will be teenagers. I know that I'm already obsolete, but my job as a parent is to provide 24/7 tech support for life. I do so, willingly, without judgement or reproach of anyone. I'm not a perfect parent, so I allow my kids to teach me something new every day.

My definition of love is to allow another person to grow to the greatest extent possible, while doing no harm. In my actions, I strive to provide a constant reminder to my wife and kids, that "my door" is always open and that they can talk to me about anything at all, at anytime. That is what Hannah Baker needed from the beginning, an open door.
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