Victoria Stevens on Viktor Frankl and Prague

Noodle Expert Victoria Stevens discusses what led her to pursue a career helping at-risk youths and other trauma victims, how and what she continues to learn from Viktor Frankl, and how she maintains mindfulness amidst chaos.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

Viktor Frankl is the first person to come to mind. I had the privilege of taking a few classes with him in Vienna before he died. I was so tremendously moved by his life experiences and the writing of "Man's Search for Meaning." His joy, wonder, curiosity, and belief in the essential goodness of human beings even in the face of all he witnessed and experienced in a concentration camp were humbling and inspiring. He said that what he wanted to focus on at that point in his life were children who were traumatized and at-risk. This was exactly what I was doing, and he pointed the way to integrate philosophy and psychology into education and activism to help those who suffered through no fault of their own. I would want to learn more about this and would be so grateful for his mentorship. As it is, however, I still feel that he continues to be one of my teachers.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

One of my mentors in graduate school pulled me aside and said, "Don't forget, Victoria, when you are up to your butt in alligators, its easy to forget your original purpose was to dredge the swamp!"

I have never forgotten this, and I am constantly thinking about my larger purpose in life, as well as my specific purpose in any given context and situation as part of decision-making and mindful action. This is especially true in stressful situations and those in which I am emotionally "hijacked" by my own or others' reactions or actions. This has become a very important part of my work.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

I would send her to Prague. It is the most beautiful city I have ever experienced and has a history that goes back to 400 AD. The architecture in the city mirrors its historical eras and is an art lesson in itself. The struggles with tyranny and the establishment of democracy is a crucial lesson for everyone. I was lucky enough to be there six months after the Velvet Revolution and was completely humbled by my lack of appreciation for the democracy in which I had grown up.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

I did very poorly in algebra and trigonometry in high school. It was the first time I experienced real difficulty and failure. I gave up on it and focused on my strengths, assuming I was bad at math because I was an artist and intellectual. When I took logic in college, I discovered that I was actually very good at it. Then I went back to math and found that when I applied what I had learned in logic to math, it made total sense and I did very well. I learned many things: not to give up; to try to understand the thinking that blocks progress when things are difficult; to recognize that there are many ways to learn, know, and understand any concept; to not buy into societal myths and assumptions; and finally, to have patience and discover what works best for me using my own natural gifts and talents, as well as to continue to look for new ways to achieve goals.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I went into psychology because I had worked for an organization that sounded philanthropic and had lofty goals. But as time went by, it became corrupted by power and money and became more and more abusive. After I left I wanted to understand a) why I stayed so long and ignored my intuition to leave for as long as I did; b) how groups become corrupt even with "positive" goals and ideals; and c) why so many people remained silent and went along with the abuse.

I went to graduate school to understand myself and how systems work. This led me to cognitive psychology and psychoanalysis interwoven with social and developmental psychology. I worked with victims and perpetrators of violent as well as non-violent crimes. I had always been an artist (musician, dancer, singer, actress) and teacher, so I wove all of this together into educational programs focusing on creativity through the arts into all subjects for all students with a special emphasis on those who have been or are being traumatized. This outcome was completely different than I expected. I had no desire or ambition to become a psychologist, much less get a Ph.D. and spend seven years post-doc in psychoanalytic training and now 10 more training in developmental neurobiology. However, it turned out to be a critical missing piece in my larger lifelong quest to understand the human mind and be a source of healing for others.

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