Growing Minds During War

Amiel Handelsman
16 min readOct 25, 2022

People interested in personal growth rarely turn to historians for guidance. This isn’t surprising. Whereas personal growth is seen as an inner journey, history is largely about external forces. Personal growth starts with the individual. History is about nations and economies.

Or so the thinking goes.

Yet all of us live in a particular moment in history. Our lives are shaped by the culture, economy, and structures we inhabit. The past, both distant and near, influences every dimension of our experience. For those of us on growth paths, it can be useful to remember that the teachings for developing ourselves did not appear out of thin air. They emerged from crucibles of history.

Take, for example, the great psychologist Csikszentmihaly, who died at this time last year. He is famous for the concept of flow. Less well known is how he discovered flow: playing chess as a boy in an Italian prison during World War II:

I discovered chess was a miraculous way of entering into a different world where all those things [death and loss of freedom] didn’t matter. For hours I’d just focus within a reality that had clear rules and goals.

History provides challenges. These challenges can foster growth.

Want to escape history? Not so fast

In the late 1990s, many westerners imagined an escape from history. Democracy was on the rise. Capitalism reigned supreme. The horrors of the past were distant relics unlikely to be repeated. It was easy to envision a future of continuous progress. Not everyone subscribed to this view, but many did, include large portions of what I’ll loosely call the personal growth community. I remember a dinner in San Francisco shortly before the 2000 U.S. Presidential election. Nearly everyone present agreed that it didn’t matter who won, Gore or Bush. Why should it have if the big questions in the world had already been decided?

This assumption, of course, didn’t last long. September 11, 2001 was a bellwether event. Then a war of choice in Iraq fought on what turned out to be false pretenses. The flooding of New Orleans. The Great Recession. The election of 2016. The west coast burning from wildfires. A worldwide pandemic.

All of us have our own versions of this story. Each generally ends with the same assessment: we’re in a horrible, ugly mess. Some call this the meta-crisis. More colloquially, we say that the shit has hit the fan. Have you noticed that it continues to hit the fan every day?

There is no mistaking it. We are living in history.

This may be why more of us are paying attention to historians. They know something about history. This understanding provides useful context for commenting on the events of today. In recent years, numerous friends and colleagues have been listening closely to Timothy Snyder.

A Yale historian, Snyder first came into the public spotlight after the election of Mr. Trump. In On Tyranny, he offered twenty lessons that Americans could learn from twentieth century Europe, like “do not obey in advance” and “listen for dangerous words.” Potent stuff — as much rules for living as visits to the past.

One thing I found refreshing about Snyder was his humility. In interviews, he acknowledged that although he was writing to Americans, he was not an expert on American history. Indeed, he was giving himself a crash course on this topic. That is because Snyder’s professional focus had been and remains the history of Eastern Europe. He reads ten European languages and speaks five. One big reason he broke new ground with Black Earth, his history of the Holocaust, is that he got his hands on newly discovered documents written in Polish and Ukrainian and personally translated them to English.

Timothy Snyder’s project for us

Fast forward to February 2022. When Russia invaded Ukraine, much of the world was in shock and searching for explanations. Snyder suddenly was everywhere, helping journalists and the public make sense of the war and placing it in historical context. Given Snyder’s expertise, it did not surprise me that people would be turning to him for guidance. Yet, I quickly realized Snyder was offering more than lessons from history. He is no average historian (if there is such a thing), and the way he speaks is distinct from that of most public intellectuals. I’ve been following Snyder long enough to know that this way of being isn’t momentary or accidental. Instead, it’s a long-standing and integral part of how he helps people make sense of the world. Yes, he’s explaining what’s happening, but he’s also up to something else. It is this other pursuit that may explain why so many people I know can’t stop listening to him. What is it?

Snyder, I’ve come to realize, isn’t showing people only what to think about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He’s also showing us how to think and, on a deeper level, who to be as we make sense of the war.

In the past few weeks, Snyder has produced a flurry of talks and essays. You can find them on his Substack page. One consistent theme I’ve observed is a particular stance Snyder takes toward the words of Mr. Putin. He doesn’t just describe these words and where they come from. He also explains how they have made their way into American public discourse — indeed, how they have infused our minds. Snyder wants us to see these dynamics through sober eyes and take a perspective on them, rather than swallowing them whole.

Developmental psychologist Robert Kegan has a name for what Snyder is asking of us. Kegan calls it a subject-object shift. This is when we transform what we’ve been subject to and therefore unable to see into an object of awareness that we can act upon. Rather than the idea having us, we have the idea. In Kegan’s model of human development, subject-object shifts happen multiple times in a person’s life. Each shift brings greater inner capacity to respond to the world’s complexity — and new challenges. The big shift most Americans encounter during adulthood is into what Kegan calls the “self-authoring mind.” Consider the urge many of us feel to own our careers, create personal brands, be self-directed learners, or respond non-defensively to conflict. Each of these tasks not only requires particular skills, but it also calls on the self-authoring mind.

Here is a clue into the special project Snyder wants us to undertake with respect to the war. Could he be asking us to grow into — or remember our capacity for — a self-authoring mind?

Snyder doesn’t use this term and likely isn’t aware of the theory behind it. Yet it seems as though this important developmental shift is at the center of Snyder’s work — and, perhaps, his appeal to many people I know.

Internalizing Mr. Putin’s framing

Consider Snyder’s recent essay, “How does the Russo-Ukrainian War end?” Before you get to the first paragraph, the subtitle hints at what Snyder is up to: “Sometimes you change the subject, and sometimes the subject changes you.” This doesn’t sound like an ordinary polemic. It may be about shifting what you see, but it’s also about shifting the person doing the seeing. That person, of course, is you and me.

In this essay, Snyder invites us to think differently about Mr. Putin’s recent threats of nuclear attacks. Our default habit is to automatically accept the premise that the threats are genuine and the attacks likely. Snyder wants to interrupt this habit. Why? Two reasons. First, any talk of nuclear war shifts the topic away from the actual war, which Ukraine is winning and which, in turn, is weakening Putin’s power at home. Second, such talk writ large gives Mr. Putin what he wants: a public open to nuclear blackmail.

Shifting the topic is a familiar phenomenon. We all do it. We know how this works.

Blackmail, on the other hand, requires a bit more explanation. Snyder:

Once the subject of nuclear war is raised, it seems overwhelmingly important, and we become depressed and obsessed. That is just where Putin is trying to lead us with his vague allusions to nuclear weapons. Once we take his cue, we imagine threats that Russia is not actually making. We start talking about a Ukrainian surrender, just to relieve the psychological pressure we feel.

What is Snyder doing here? Yes, he’s commenting on public events. But that’s not all. He’s also speaking directly to you and me about how we interpret these events — how we read the news, listen to others, and make sense of the moment. He wants us to notice that we aren’t objective observers, rationally taking in the world “out there.” Instead, we are helping create the world by actively interpreting it.

Putin’s threats are real. They are objective facts; he is actually making them. However, the way we make sense of these threats isn’t Putin’s doing. It’s our own. We are doing the interpreting. We are making assessments of how things are going. We are imagining what’s possible. Unfortunately, what we are imagining all too often is exactly what Putin wants us to imagine.

Political scientists call this effective propaganda. In adult development, we speak of it as internalizing others’ perspectives and values. Such internalizing happens automatically and outside conscious awareness. Putin threatens nuclear war. The news reports this threat in ways that make it seem credible. Then we do our part. We accept the threat as real and terrifying.

It’s just like breathing in oxygen. Nobody thinks, “I’ve just exhaled. I need oxygen. Hey, here’s some oxygen. I think I’ll breathe it in.” We just take a breath. The same is true with internalizing Putin’s threat of nuclear attack. It enters us and becomes our perspective. We become one with it.

Before offering an alternative view of the war, Snyder wants us to recognize what is happening — what our minds are doing and what person we are being.

The socialized mind

Habitually internalizing others’ perspectives has a name in adult development: the socialized mind. In recent decades, the field has learned a lot about the socialized mind: how it works and what becomes possible by growing beyond it. Understanding these dynamics can help us see exactly what Snyder is asking of us and why it matters to our own growth and the fate of democracies.

According to Robert Kegan, the socialized mind involves not only seeing that others have ideas and perspectives outside your own but identifying with these ideas and perspectives. If I care about X, then you care about X. If I consider Y to be important, then you consider Y to be important. Hence the term “internalize.” You take in what matters to others and make it your own. Indeed, you construct yourself based on the values and ideas of the culture and community around you.

Based on how I’ve tied the socialized mind to the war in Ukraine, you might think it’s a human defect. It’s not. The socialized mind offers a capacity to be in relationship with others. Building this capacity is central to the process of maturing. The very notion of “interpersonal” skills refers to the socialized mind, because life isn’t just about Me. It’s also about Us. With the socialized mind, there is loyalty to a perspective beyond my own.

Humans aren’t born with the capacity to internalize other’s perspectives. We aren’t born with the socialized mind. We grow into it. This happens during adolescence, and it’s a momentous achievement. The socialized mind may not be useful in building an engaged citizenry capable of withstanding propaganda. However, it is an essential foundation for doing so, because we develop the self-authoring mind only after first developing the socialized mind.

Growing beyond the socialized mind may make more sense by first understanding how we grow into it.

Consider life before the socialized mind, before adolescence. Let’s say you have a ten-year-old daughter. What she wants at this stage in life is based on her self-interest. This affects how she relates to requests you make of her, like taking out the trash. Sure, if you ask her to take out the trash every Wednesday morning, she’ll do it (hopefully!). But this isn’t because she’s internalized your value around the chore. It’s because she wants to get her allowance, keep her screen time, or not “make you mad.” The exchange has extrinsic value for her. Fast forward to age thirteen. Now she is starting to internalize your perspective around trash, but just a little. Life is still mostly about what’s in it for her. Over the next half dozen years, she increasingly knows herself as what matters to others. She takes others’ perspectives as her own. Relationships start to have intrinsic value. She develops the socialized mind.

In his book In Over Our Heads, Robert Kegan calls this the “hidden curriculum of youth.” The curriculum is hidden from all of us, including parents. Parents want their teens to think as they do, to internalize their values, but teens are still building that capacity. Parents don’t realize this — they assume teens already operate from a socialized mind — so everyday interactions become even more frustrating. This is because they aren’t aware of the curriculum.

If a 5’3” guy on your team tries to dunk a basketball and fails, you can get mad at him. Or you can realize he’s simply not tall enough. Teens don’t have the capacity to fully internalize others’ perspectives. It’s simply not possible and certainly not consistently.

Getting back to the example of your daughter, the good news is that she’s very likely to complete the hidden curriculum of youth and develop into the socialized mind. The bad news is that this will happen after she has moved out of the house and is no longer available for trash duty.

The self-authoring mind

Although the socialized mind offers new capacities, it doesn’t fully equip us for adult life in today’s world. As I mentioned before, society wants us to own our careers, create personal brands, be self-directed learners, and respond non-defensively to conflict. The socialized mind isn’t able to do these things. It can internalize other’s values and perspectives but remains subject to them.

That’s why encountering two contrasting views about a topic — like where to live, what work to do, or how to think about a political issue — feels like deep inner tearing. There is no larger self to work with these different views, no capacity to construct a theory of how to handle them.

That’s where the self-authoring mind comes in. This form of sense-making doesn’t simply internalize thoughts and ideas from the broader culture. Instead, it actively interprets these thoughts within a more mature and complex structure. It makes these thoughts an object of awareness and then, in a sense, decides what to do with them.

Hence the capacity to own your career, be a self-directed learner…and make sense of political propaganda.

Naming Mr. Putin’s framing and gaming

With this understanding of adult development in mind, let’s return to Timothy Snyder’s take on the war in Ukraine. As mentioned above, Snyder wants us to stop believing everything we hear, particularly narratives of the war that don’t sound like propaganda.

Consider the claim that Putin is serious in his nuclear threats. There’s nothing in here that sounds like propaganda, is there? After all, Putin’s losing the war, desperate to hold onto power, and a megalomaniac. If he was bold and crazy enough to invade Ukraine, surely he’s bold and crazy enough to make a nuclear attack. This is common sense, right?

Snyder begs to differ:

Putin wants us to sympathize with his situation, which is of course a highly suspect move in itself. But is what he says even credible? We say that “Putin is backed to the wall. What will he do?” That is how we get ourselves talking about nuclear weapons: Putin gets us into what we are to supposed to believe is his own psychological space. But this is all just feeling. It is not really a motive…The Russian armed forces are not “backed against a wall” in Ukraine: they are safe if they retreat back to Russia.

Snyder is doing two things here: showing us how socialized minds handle Putin’s storyline and offering a self-authoring response. Recall that the socialized mind automatically internalizes others’ perspectives. This is what happens when “Putin gets us into what we are supposed to believe is his own psychological space.” We are internalizing Putin’s psychology and perspective. Again, this seems perfectly innocent and nothing like buying into Russian propaganda, but is very consistent with the socialized mind.

Fortunately, Snyder offers an alternative. By naming the game Putin is playing, he makes this game an object in our awareness. It shifts from something that has us to something that we have. The idea that Russian armed forces are backed against a wall isn’t a fact. It’s an assessment. A story. According to Snyder, Putin hopes that we’ll swallow this story — internalize it without taking a perspective on it — because this makes talk of nuclear weapons — and therefore nuclear blackmail — easier.

By naming this dynamic, Snyder introduces a subject-object shift. We stop thinking, Yep, that’s how things are. Instead, we realize that we have a choice about how to interpret Putin’s actions and the war as a whole.

The mind capable of making such a choice is a self-authoring mind.

A mind that can imagine the war ending

In the essay Snyder goes on to describe how the war in Ukraine has “weakened Putin’s position” in Russia. Russian military bloggers urging greater escalation make Putin look weak. Critics of the war, as they become more vocal, make him look foolish. Meanwhile, two rivals who control mercenary armies, Ramzan Kadyrov and Yevgeny Prigozhin, publicly call for intensifying the war yet hold back their own troops — possibly, Snyder, says, to make a “play for Moscow.” For the same reason, it may make sense for Putin to have troops near at hand, ready to protect his regime, rather than hundreds of miles away:

If this is what is coming, Putin will need no excuse to pull out from Ukraine, since he will be doing so for his own political survival. For all of his personal attachment to his odd ideas about Ukraine, I take it that he is more attached to power.

Here Snyder is constructing a theory of how the war might end. In this regard, he is paving a road that few have dared to tread. Just as even the most hardened observers didn’t envision the war starting, it now seems that few can imagine it ending. But this is the advantage of being a historian. You have studied how things start and end. You see patterns. This gives you enough distance from prevailing media narratives to see a possibility that others don’t or can’t.

Before reading Snyder’s essay, I hadn’t heard anyone suggest how this war might end, certainly not from a Putin withdrawal. Maybe I don’t read widely enough. Or perhaps most journalists and commentators are too busy internalizing Putin’s framing to recognize this key distinction: if Putin has to choose between taking Ukraine or keeping power, he’ll choose power.

Constructing a theory of how the war might end is a self-authoring act. Explaining how you get there so that others can follow your lead is something more. It enters the territory of facilitating others’ development or at least igniting the possibility that they can grow. In Robert Kegan’s words, adult development happens when people receive an “exquisite blend of challenge and support.”

The war in Ukraine, not to mention the other stresses in our collective lives, challenges us to grow into a self-authoring mind. I’ve begun to see Snyder’s words here — and his public contributions as a whole — as providing important support.

Is this fallback?

One final puzzle: why do so many self-authoring people accept Putin’s framing of the war? I include myself in this group. Before reading Snyder’s essay, I fully bought into the threat of nuclear war and what it might mean for the United States’s policy choices. No, I didn’t favor a withdrawal of military support. But I accepted the “backed to the wall” narrative and discounted the potential impact of Putin’s weakening grip on power. Why did this happen to me…and others?

One answer is ignorance. We haven’t followed the war closely. We know nothing about Putin’s rivals. So we simply accept the story we are told.

There is much truth to this explanation.

Yet what I’ve just described isn’t an isolated incident. It’s part of a larger pattern I observe among relatively mature people. When the topic is politics, we lose a decade or two of maturity. When dealing with elections, debates, and big political questions, our capacity for complexity reverts back to an earlier era of life. We become dumber. Or at least less able to self-author our experiences. As a result, rather than seeing the partial truths in different political ideologies and positions, we choose one side or the other. When reading a news story, instead of pausing to reflect on how it fits into a broader view of the world, we immediately identify with one side or the other. What do you call this?

Yes, I know: a human being. But how might we describe this within the world of adult development? If you function at self-authoring or beyond (a topic for another day) most of the time yet find yourself operating as the socialized mind in certain situations or periods of life, what’s going on?

Valerie Livesay, author of Leaving the Ghost Light Burning, has a name for this: fallback. “Fallback,” she writes “is the complete loss of options, of capacity, of access to feel, to behave, to think at the developmental level which you are ideally capable. You may consider fallback your small self…a departure from your Big Self.”

If your Big Self can take a perspective on Putin’s framing of the war, your small self can’t or won’t. It may even be duped by this framing in ways that the Big Self would be embarrassed to admit.

Could it be that many of us, when confronted with the news about Ukraine — or climate change or the attack on the Capitol or… — go into fallback?

If so, then this may explain the profound impact that Snyder’s words have had on many people I know. On a collective level, we’ve learned to see the “end of history” for what it is: a delusion. Russia’s invasion may seem to suggest that the world itself has fallen back. Yet from the view of history, nothing of the sort has happened. Barbarism and brutality have not returned; they never left. Similarly, just as wars start unexpectedly, so too can they end in unforeseen ways and on timelines we cannot predict. It often takes a historian’s long view to reveal to us what we otherwise might not see.

Toward a self-authoring citizenry

Herein lies Snyder’s gift to our own sensemaking. He reminds us that we live in history and that we are blinded by the presumption that we don’t. This blindness is a form of fallback. It isn’t our best self. It isn’t even our second best self. And it’s scary to admit to ourselves, much less others. Yet owning up to this fallback, to this return to the socialized mind, is the first step in working with it.

Growing into the self-authoring mind — and returning when we’ve fallen back — isn’t about only individual lives. It’s also about the fate of democracies. As Lene Rachel Andersen has written, when people are given political freedom, it takes a lot of self-authoring minds to manage this freedom without producing bloodshed.

In that sense, the story of how we make sense of Putin’s nuclear blackmail has a larger moral. The turbulent events that continue to shake our world create a hidden curriculum for citizens. Perhaps it’s time to claim this curriculum as our own and get on with the coursework.

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Amiel Handelsman

Executive coach, Dad, husband, reimagining American identity, and taking other fiercely nuanced stands on the world's big messes. More at amielhandelsman.com.