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Robert Coles and the Moral Life


When so much talk of morality is marked by aggression and self-righteousness, Robert Coles is a gentler and deeper moral voice. David Swick profiles this child psychiatrist, civil rights activist, and author who has spent his life considering the nature of morality and its central place in our lives.

When six-year-old Ruby Bridges was jeered, threatened, and hated—for wanting to go to school in segregated New Orleans in the early sixties—she received a request from a young child psychiatrist named Robert Coles. He wanted to know what the little girl was thinking and feeling. They talked to each other over several months, and the deeper their conversation went, the more Coles was surprised.

“She once told me she felt sorry for those people who were trying to kill her,” Coles says. “I asked her, ‘You feel sorry for them?’ And she looked at me and said, ‘Well, don’t you think they need feeling sorry for?’ Talk about wisdom! And talk about moral intuition. I sat there stunned. I was applying standard psychology, trying to help her realize that she was maybe angry at these people, and bitter and anxious, and she was telling me that she prayed for them. I was struck dumb and I was silent, because I had to reflect upon this child’s wisdom. She was smart enough to understand, without taking courses in the social sciences or other fields of inquiry, what happens to people.”

When Robert Coles talks about what happens to people, he means what happens to their sense of morality. One of America’s most prominent child psychiatrists, a longtime Harvard professor, and the author of more than sixty books, Coles is one of our great moral visionaries. The Presidential Medal of Freedom and other awards are incidental. Coles has spent his life investigating morality—what it is, how it’s created, and its place in our lives. His verdict: morality is not just niceties, or theoretical, or a side issue. It is the central issue of our existence, the factor that defines the quality of our lives as human beings.

“Morality defines not only how we get along with the world and one another, and the rules of life; it characterizes our very nature,” he says. “Morality has to do with human connection. It has to do with the kind of connection that responds to others, and in turn earns the caring response of others. If we are deprived of our morality, we’re deprived of an essential part of ourselves.”

After reading his work for years, I met Robert Coles at a journalism conference in Boston. Norman Mailer and Seymour Hersh, the investigative journalist who exposed the My Lai massacre and focused attention of the brutality at Abu Ghraib, were the other keynote speakers; Coles received the only standing ovation. He spoke to the packed hall the way he speaks one-on-one: with penetrating intensity, touches of humor, and a voice that is both powerful and soft. Journalists as a rule don’t like to applaud, and when the crowd rose I felt it was due mainly not to what Coles had said, but the way he said it. He got under their skin, and they responded to his voice thick with honesty, caring, and concern.

Now seventy-six, he has been considering morality, childhood, and the relationship between the two for more than half a century. His books, including The Moral Life of Children, The Spiritual Life of Children, and the Pulitzer-Prize–winning Children of Crisis series, have helped unlock the mystery of childhood experience. He has talked with thousands of children, including many in minority communities (Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and Inuit) and in difficult places (ghettos, Appalachia, Northern Ireland, war zones).

Children talk to Coles partly because he directs full attention to whomever he is talking with. This isn’t pretense; he is deeply curious, and a devoted listener. He allows the talker to feel accepted, to open up, to want to talk more. Children may be responding, too, to his bird’s nest of hair, craggy features, and sweetly twisted Boston accent. Coles would make a fine Muppet character: the good doctor.

As modest as he is acclaimed, Coles credits children with teaching him. “I think we chronically underestimate the wisdom that resides in children,” he says. “I know children who don’t know how to read and write, but they know how to use language enough to ask profound questions. Children tell us about the origins of [human spirituality], because they ask questions about the sky, the earth, what is happening. These are fundamental moral and spiritual questions. Where do we come from? Where, if anyplace, are we going? Does consciousness give way to some other kind of eternal existence or does death mean the end of us?

“These are very complicated questions,” he goes on, “and these are questions that children, like the rest of us, ask. Maybe the answer is there are no answers. It’s not common, but every once in a while you’ll get a good skeptical child who’ll say, ‘I don’t think there is any answer to these questions.’ In fact one child said to me, ‘I think the person asking the question is telling me more about himself than about the answer to the question.’ Pretty shrewd. I said to myself, ‘Here’s a future psychiatrist right before me.’”

Conversations with Coles are like this: you’re just sitting there talking, and suddenly a story breaks out. He has a storyteller’s talent for bringing a tale to life, and for making complicated information clear. Usually, too, his stories are graced with a moral point.

This is a good thing; morals can be tricky, and we don’t talk about them enough. Questionable morality is widely assumed to be someone else’s problem. Partly this is presumption: just as everyone thinks their table manners are fine, almost everyone believes that they, personally, are moral and good. Yet the moral high ground is often staked out with aggression: terrorists and counterterrorists both believe they are doing the right thing. Politicians and counter-culture dropouts wrap themselves in the greater good while pursuing their self-interest. And regularly, in everyday life, sometimes without thinking, so do you and I.

Children are not Coles’ only compatriots and collaborators. He has also befriended and toiled alongside many highly influential people, including Robert F. Kennedy, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Martin Luther King, Jr. The place of morality in public life is a key theme in many of his books, including Lives of Moral Leadership, The Mind’s Fate, and The Call of Service. Much of his work gives voice to the voiceless. My first Coles book was The Old Ones of New Mexico, in which rural Mexican-Americans simply talk about their lives. Like so much of Coles’ work it reveals the inner lives of “normal” people—and they prove to be extraordinary. Coles offers the powerless a voice, in the hope that readers will connect with them and find and treasure our common humanity. In an increasingly distrustful world, where our deepest beliefs can divide us, Coles is in the tradition of great teachers showing us what we share.

His concern with morality is not tied to any religious tradition, but to a profound caring for people. His insights are offered with humility and good humor. He believes all religions involve a quest for understanding, and that the roots of human spirituality are both social and in human nature. “I think the social side is also part of human nature: we are a social creature or we wouldn’t exist,” he says. “After all, someone fed us, someone protected us from the elements—there’s the beginning of society. The understanding that, for survival, one needs another or several others: right there is the basis of morality.”

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