Robert Coles and the Moral Life

So much talk of morality today is marked by aggression and self-righteousness, but Robert Coles speaks in 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.

Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe

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 counterculture 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 collaborato rs. 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.”

The investigator of morals began his life, he cheerfully admits, as a sometimes selfish child. His mother was from Iowa, his father from England. They met and married in Boston, where Coles was born and still lives. His mother worried about injustice, discrimination, and poverty, and was part of the Catholic Worker movement, which was trying to cure these ills through good deeds: feeding the hungry, clothing the poor. His father was sterner, less certain that acts of charity could have a lasting impact, and skeptical about psychological analysis and the social sciences. At the dinner table he offered his children this definition of character: “Character is how you behave when no one is looking.”

His parents had exacting standards—they took their moral life seriously—and they found a major source of inspiration in literature. Literature can be a moral catalyst, they realized, because great writers explore a serious question: why do people do what they do? Growing up, Coles would often hear his parents reading to each other. Tolstoy, Hardy, Eliot, Emerson, Thoreau: they regarded these writers as friends helping them find a moral path through life. Dinner conversations would analyze what the writer intended, what choices the characters might make, and what might be done instead.

But as a boy Coles did not love great books; he loved comics. He wished his parents would read upstairs, so he could tune the radio to The Shadow. Nor did he always consider morality to be the stuff of pleasurable contemplation. As a young man he rebelled, thinking his mother off-puttingly pious. Only slowly did he come to value his parents’ wisdom, and appreciate how deeply their principles had seeped into him.

His life has been devoted to the moral evolution of humanity, which he defines as a gradual growth of connection and solidarity. The problem, he says, is that we lack one of the basic kinds of intelligence. In The Moral Intelligence of Children, he suggests we need to develop three kinds of intelligence: intellectual, emotional, and moral. We have long placed a premium on intellectual intelligence, and in the past generation or two have also emphasized emotional intelligence. Moral intelligence has not been given the same value. Yet it is our moral development that allows us to live out our conscience, and thus live a life that is sane and whole.

Children acquire moral intelligence, Coles believes, by observing what we do, not what we say. Explaining a theory or belief is fine, but if not supported by the proof of concrete experience, children are unlikely to make it their own. A key ingredient in developing moral children is to figure out what we want transmitted, and then act morally ourselves. Parents (and teachers and guardians) need to be moral leaders and mentors to children, rather than buddies. Coles is the father of three sons. Raising them, he was struck by how often they would teach him: to slow down, to listen, to be present, to love. When children are old enough to be affected by our speedy, materialistic society, Coles says, we need to stand alongside them, to use the word “we”—to help them know they are not facing the onslaught alone.

Like his parents, Coles believes one of the most powerful ways we learn morals is through stories. Literature and poetry bring us deeper knowledge of ourselves, life, and the world. “The whole point of stories is not ‘solutions’ or ‘resolutions,’” he writes in The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, “but the broadening and even a heightening of our struggles.” Coles’ writing is personable and non-academic, searching and sincere. He writes like he talks. Insights are offered and theories proposed, but the point is to consider issues and develop discussion, not necessarily frame a conclusion. Interviewees’ ideas and concerns are prominently presented, too. His books are part documentary, part heart-to-heart chat.

As he grew older, Coles learned from a number of teachers—in school and out—who emphasized his interests in morality and the power of language. He was leaning toward a career as a teacher, but inspired by the renowned writer-doctor William Carlos Williams, decided to become a doctor, and eventually a child psychiatrist. He found the courage to write Williams, who invited Coles to visit him at his New Jersey home. The student did, many times, joining the doctor on his rounds among the poorest people of Paterson. They discussed books as well as health—and the connection between the two.

Williams believed most people to be stuck and unhappy, feeling somehow disconnected from their own lives. He referred to habitual thought as “the regularly ordered plate glass” of life. Plate glass, because it is transparent, gives the illusion of intimacy, but in reality it separates you from the other side. He did not trust the abstract mind working on its own, and believed writing could be “subverted by thought.” His slogan “no ideas but in things” (later embraced by Allen Ginsberg and other Beat generation writers) underscored his belief that the earthy and ethereal need each other, and together ground life in genuine connection.

As a psychiatrist in training, Coles’ first appointment was at the Massachusetts General Hospital. His supervisor, Dr. Alfred O. Ludwig, stressed that rather than merely making a diagnosis and setting a therapeutic agenda, it was crucial to truly understand patients. The key to doing this, Ludwig said, was to listen to their stories. He warned that doctors can lose a story’s nuances and subtleties in “overwrought language and overwrought theory.” This, he said, led doctors to become less humane, and to understand people only in theory.

Coles first came to public attention with an article in The Atlantic Monthly. “A Young Psychiatrist Looks at His Profession” was a critical assessment, at a time when few psychiatrists voiced such concerns. He suggested that psychiatry, because it emphasized “form, and detail, and compliance,” was too bureaucratic and institutionalized. “For the individual psychiatrist, the institutional rigidities affect his thoughts and attitudes, taint his words and feelings, and thereby his ability to treat patients,” he wrote. “We become victims of what we most dread; our sensibilities die, and we no longer care or notice.”

Coles’ youthful idealism ran into a brick wall of reality when, in 1958, he and his wife Jane, an English teacher, moved from Boston to Biloxi, Mississippi, where Coles was stationed as an Air Force psychiatrist. When they were off the base, they were appalled at the legalized discrimination, the culturally condoned suffering. Wondering what they could do, Jane suggested Coles spend more time getting to know people in their homes. It was she who suggested he call Ruby Bridges; Coles was busy, he acknowledges dryly, focusing on “my career.”

Among Coles’ experiences in the South, perhaps the most frightening was his narrow avoidance of a violent death. He was with civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andy Goodman in Neshoba County, Mississippi, and about to join them in their car when he was called back to the office. The three were chased down by a mob and killed, in the case that came to be known as the “Mississippi Burning” murders.

Coles was a front-line participant in the struggle for civil rights. He expanded his study of school desegregation to include other students and other states. His hands-on, in-depth style of research got its start in Atlanta, after black leaders refused to allow him access to students there. Coles asked if he could help in some other way, and was jokingly told he could—by keeping their offices clean. So he became their janitor, and cleaned the offices for a year. “I slowly learned,” he writes in The Call of Service, “to abandon my reliance on questionnaires and structured interviews and instead to do, to experience service, and thereby learn something about what those young people had in mind as they went about their activist lives.”

 Through his whole adult life Coles has made time to volunteer, often teaching literacy skills in inner-city schools. His parents were volunteers: they believed morality should be acted out in community service. The first time their son volunteered, he went halfheartedly. It was in a Catholic Worker community, and one day he complained to the director about how he felt like a hypocrite. She replied with a shot at ego. “Pride has us think ourselves to be especially wicked sometimes,” she said, “when really we’re just trying to get from one day to the other, and of course we stumble every now and then.” Coles was furious, walked out, and didn’t return for a month. It took that long to realize how proud he had been.

 Surrounded by Southern politicians inspiring people to hate and fear, he began to consider the meaning and value of moral leadership. Moral leaders don’t just talk a good game, but behave in a way that is morally sound, too. And they have the power to bring people to them, joining together to do what is right and just and humane. A lack of moral leadership, Coles believes, undermines the potential for genuine happiness in families, communities, and society. When moral leadership is exerted, it creates positive energy even in unexpected places. “This is what I saw when Ruby was struggling to get into her school,” he says. “She became, in a way, the leader of her people. The circumstances prompted other people to begin to ask questions, including some of the hecklers. A few of them began to feel much more on Ruby’s side than they ever thought they would.” He considers this for a moment, and accepts it as a maxim: “Sometimes people get caught up in life and they’re given second thoughts. Those second thoughts can be extremely important moral ones.”

Moral leadership can occur, Coles says, not just in extraordinary situations, but in day-to-day life. “In our everyday life, in those small moments that become large moments, we do touch one another,” he says. “We give examples to one another, and maybe help one another figure out what we believe in. In ordinary circumstances people will ask things about life, and other people respond, and there’s a chain reaction of a very nice kind. I saw a moment in a store a couple years ago where a person was trying to steal something. Someone said to him, ‘Why are you doing this?’ Instead of calling the police or calling the man names, he asked that question—and it stopped the thief in his tracks. The would-be thief looked and said, ‘I don’t know.’ And the man said, ‘That’s the question of the day for you. What does this mean to you that you have to do that? What is it going to do to you to do it? Don’t you think it’s going to affect you in a way that makes it not so worthwhile to do it?’

“The man, I think, was stunned by that kind of response. It was an interesting moment and it culminated in the man walking away with slumped shoulders, and the man who had posed that question saying, ‘Think about all this.’”

For Coles, then, morality is supremely democratic. It involves everyone; we all have a part to play.

Asked to name the great moral leaders of his time, Coles selects Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. Both men strove to see clearly, cared deeply about ordinary people, and had a vision to lessen suffering and improve life for all. In Lives of Moral Leadership Coles recalls Kennedy telling him that upper- and middle-class people who become frustrated with the state of the world need to face up to their “privileged innocence and, with it, perhaps, an unwitting self-importance.” In the middle of complicated political struggles, Kennedy told him, the point was to “best figure out a moral, not a pyrrhic victory.” To do this, Kennedy said, we need to be aware, keep our eyes open, expect long, difficult struggles, and not stop working for positive change.

Morality is fostered—or undermined—not just at home but on a national scale. In countries of every political stripe, Coles contends in The Political Lives of Children, the nation’s politics “becomes a child’s everyday psychology.” Hatred and ignorance are passed on by example and osmosis. So are wisdom and goodness.

Coles is now working on a new project, talking with American children born to people with AIDS, trying to understand how these children are affected by the illness. He has come full circle: his earliest research, back in the fifties, was talking to children with polio. Understanding how children are affected by illness, he says, is still lacking. Fifty years into his career, Coles continues to work for children.  “I’m interested in moral matters not because I’m trying to explore intellectual or philosophical matters, so much as responding as a physician to the children I’ve gotten to know,” he says. “I’m trying to do justice to what I’ve heard from them.”

The last century is often cited for being bloody; this new century is off to a nervous start. Coles sees plenty of reasons for concern: moral lapses occur everywhere, from the smallest neighborhood to the world political scene. Power is being abused and mistakes repeated; human life continues to be flush with unnecessary suffering. Yet he remains optimistic. Partly this is based in responsibility—he knows that people who give up faith in the future lose the energy to fight the good fight. Yet his optimism is based, too, in the many experiences of his long life.

“I think it’s our obligation to be hopeful for the future and to hand on a better world for our children. Gloom of a persistent kind, which denies the possibility of hopefulness, is a very melancholy thing for all of us,” he says. “I am hopeful because I’ve seen so much change. Look what I’ve lived through: segregation in the American South, and the poor denounced and ostracized and denied their human rights even in a rich country like America. Having lived to see those changes, one believes that, by golly, more changes can come about.

“Just think of what the world has been through. People like Hitler and Stalin, thank God, are no longer with us. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t always some evil, but I think we’ve overcome a lot of evil and can continue to do so. People now know more about one another, from television and other ways. We’re more intimately connected with other people in the world, and that can be the basis of a better world.

“Of course,” he concludes, “that has to be followed by a political response and a moral response to the intimacy. Otherwise, it becomes an intimacy that has no consequences for us.”