Infinite Possibilities

Happy Birthday to meeee!! 

As of today, I begin my 50th year.  What. A. Ride!!  All at once I feel pretty well-accomplished and also utterly mediocre…  Married 25 years, practicing medicine 20, parenting almost 19, blogging 7.  Such a thick tribe of friends, so many of whom showered me with love and attention today, OMG.  So much to be grateful for, there simply are not enough words.  So much love.  …I might list the myriad self-diminishing comparisons here, but naah, I grow beyond such pointlessness in my advancing age.

The Book of Regrets.  That was my original title for this post.  Would it have grabbed more attention and views?  It was an honest point of query after I listened recently to The Midnight Library by Matt Haig.  Oh my gosh, HIGHLY recommend!  In the liminal space between life and death, the main character gets to peruse her personal Book of Regrets, and sample various alternative realities wherein she made different seminal life choices.  Each path shows her both favorable and adverse subsequent events and circumstances, an infinite set of possibilities, paradoxes, and outcomes.  Perspective, my friends!  I think we consistently underestimate its value, or at least neglect to practice it in too many encounters and endeavors.  What lies ahead that I have control over and not, and that will forever send me down this path and not another?  Which of the countless choices I might make, in any given moment, may close these doors and open those?  I get giddy just thinking about it—the future is so bright, so full of infinite possibilities, and I get to live into it!  OMG can’t wait can’t wait!

Then again, in these 49 years, my Book of Regrets can feel quite heavy.  It appears sometimes out of nowhere, dropping like a sandbag on my chest—driving to work, in the shower, looking through old photos.  Within seconds I’m haplessly pinned under guilt, shame, sorrow, and remorse, sinking in the quicksand of self-loathing and powerlessness, wishing with visceral aching that I could just go back and be a better me—a much better me—in those flash moments that I will never forget, that I may never shake.  Ugh.

Paging through my book more thoughtfully, I realize that every regret is relational.  It’s never about not studying enough, failing a test, not achieving some goal, missing some external benchmark of success.  It’s never about coming up short in social comparison to others.  It’s always about hurting someone’s feelings, diminishing their self-esteem, abuse of power, and offloading or projecting my own discomfort and judgments onto others, making them suffer because I cannot tolerate or manage my own issues.  My regrets are all moral failings.  Oh man, it feels so shitty, looking back, surveying the damage I did, the relational carnage.  Wow.

*deep breath*

“What’s done is done.”  Husband has said this since our earliest days together.  I remember how freeing it felt—I still hear his voice, so clear and firm, in the living room of our first apartment, or was it a dorm room?  I am, indeed, utterly powerless to change the past.  Thankfully, shifting into agency over my present and future comes more easily every year of life and adversity lived.  Regret is painful.  And it’s inevitable.  Learning is the best poultice for such self-inflicted wounds.  And if I can figure a way to make amends, all the better.  How could I have been a better self then, when I’m always bettering myself now?  Grace and forgiveness, I know more deeply and profoundly, may be the greatest gifts we offer one another, including ourselves.  My most sincere thanks to all who have granted these to me.

Peace and equanimity, generosity and humility, joy and love, curiosity and learning, connection and solidarity.  That’s a good, strong list of healthy aspirations, ya?

It’s been a pretty awesome 49 years.  I have received so much more than I have given.  I shake my head in humble and astonished wonder.  The good news is that these days, I write my Book of Regrets in shorter chapters and longer intervals. 

Who knows how many more years I have?  However long it is, may I compose my other Books—of Contribution and Connection, among others—with eloquence, gladness, and excellent grammar. 

Calling All Depolarizers!  Part 3:  Courage Among Friends

“There are all kinds of courage,” said Dumbledore, smiling. “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends. I therefore award ten points to Mr. Neville Longbottom!”  ― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Strength in numbers.  Walking onto the volleyball court, toward a protest march, and the living room at Thanksgiving, consider how much braver we feel when surrounded by people on our own ‘side’.  The other school is bigger and richer, but we are scrappy and go after every point together.  Counter protesters look hostile and potentially violent, but we outnumber them.  Our loud cousin carries a foil of sharp political attacks, but my sister and I parry together with aplomb.  Though I still feel tension entering these conflicts, the balance between threat and challenge feels more equal with my companions than if I were alone.  Comradery makes me brave…  It may also make me susceptible to mindless group think, oversimplified binary labeling, and impulsive dehumanization of out groups and their members.  There are risks to strong tribal solidarity. 

This is why every tribe needs its loyal, internal critics.  They make us more thoughtful and help us recognize gaps and inconsistencies in our rationale and actions.  They keep us honest and hold us accountable to our professed mission and values.  We recognize them by the discomfort they cause in our conscience.  It’s worth assessing regularly how we treat these individuals; and most often they are just that—individuals—standing alone, raising warnings and braving our collective resistance, dismissal, rejection, and backlash. 

What would it take for us to welcome our internal critics and their valuable dissent more generously?

Doesn’t it ultimately go back to our own inner work?  What happens when each of us is just a little more willing to be depolarized?  What are we like to be around?  How do we act?  In my best moments, I feel peaceful.  I present as grounded and secure, unwavering in my core convictions, and yet flexible and curious about approach, method, and innovation.   As we open our minds, manifest through posture, expressions, and energy, we invite others to speak their minds more often.  We hold space, pay attention, and make it safe for diverse perspectives to comingle, integrate, and transform.  Our own personal openness lays the foundation for collective inclusion and belonging of each individual, thereby facilitating each person’s signature contribution to the collective growth and good.  The We gets stronger as our connections across difference thicken; our weave tightens; our courage grows synergistically.  

For a striking example of how putting down our spears can lead to connection and peace, without betraying our beliefs (and in fact making them stronger), read this excellent piece by Columbia psychology professor Peter Coleman, written for Divided We Fall, about the time when Pro-Life and Pro-Choice leaders met in secret in the 1990s:

“…Out of concern over more violence, three pro-life and three pro-choice leaders came together for secret dialogues. They were six women activists who had been fighting against one another over abortion for decades. 

“The talks were initiated by Laura Chasin and Susan Podziba of the Public Conversations Project, who reached out quietly to these leaders and urged them to consider meeting with the opposition. They eventually agreed and although the process was initially excruciating, with expert facilitation they managed to continue meeting together for years. Over time, they learned to work with each other despite their concerns for their careers and personal safety. Then, on January 28, 2001, they went public by co-authoring an article in the Boston Globe called ‘Talking with the Enemy.’

“One participant noted, ‘We never talk on our own sides about the shades of gray. When you are involved in a political movement like we are, we are focused on mobilizing the troops and the way you do that is we paint things in the starkest possible terms so that people are moved to act, so they know what to do. We don’t have conversations about things we have doubts about or are more murky.’ The challenges posed by the conversations and the quality of engagement opened the leaders’ minds to previously neglected aspects of their own views, which ultimately changed their approaches to advocacy.”

Consider Liz Cheney, Lisa Murkowski, and Adam Kinzinger, and Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.  We may or may not agree with their respective positions and actions.  And we can still all admire their courage in standing up to their own teams in service of their convictions and commitments.  Of note, they do this mostly without spreading toxic disrespect and vitriol.  Such self-control is to be lauded these days, no question. 

* * * *

Depolarizers practice self-awareness, self-regulation, and excellent query skills.  We train to not only tolerate and withstand disagreement, but to embrace and wrestle with it.  We do not wish to vanquish our opposition; rather we seek to understand and connect, to find the win-wins whenever possible.  We hold relationship in shared humanity above all, and we connect through deep curiosity, humility, empathy, generosity, and respect.  We understand the value of internal dissent, and the importance of holding ourselves accountable to our stated mission and values. 

These skills apply in politics, and also in every other life domain.  How are you already a depolarizing, de-escalating, and connecting force across difference in your life?  Who benefits from this contribution of yours?  What does it cost you?  What makes you willing to pay it?  What would make it easier and more rewarding to expand this practice to other domains of your life?  What would that look and feel like?

How else should we continue this discussion and practice?

**So sorry for the weird font/formatting, friends–I cannot figure out how it happens or how to fix it!


Calling All Depolarizers! Part 2: Confident Humility


…”So what keeps our inner depolarizer in the closet when it comes to sensitive topics like abortion, immigration, religion, and politics in general? Or in family conflict and workplace politics? I posit that it has, at least partially, to do with two levels of psychological safety: intrinsic and extrinsic.” Let’s talk about the first, which can be thought of as confident humility:

Premise:  I resist/reject/assail challenges to my beliefs and positions because I worry that those challenges will change my beliefs and positions.  If my beliefs are changed, then what does that mean?  Am I weak?  A hypocrite?  Uncommitted?  What will others think of me?  Will I get kicked out of my tribe? Or, maybe I just think I’m right, and I’m simply not open to the possible value of any other perspective? Or I’m afraid that if I’m not right, then I’m just wrong, and that feels too uncomfortable and I don’t want to go there. 

Question:  When does it feel safe to reconsider or challenge some belief I have?   

Answer:  When I don’t have a strong personal investment in my belief—it isn’t material to my identity, tribal membership, or survival, real or perceived.  In his book Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein summarizes eloquently the psychological research suggesting that when we perceive threats to our identity (eg gender, sexuality, sports fandom, family, nationality, political party, or other), our response is primarily emotional.  The existential discomfort (experienced as real limbic threat) causes us to reject the challenge, be it information, policies, or other people, employing confirmation bias, rationalization, and other mental self-preservation tactics. 

So, does this mean that we must dilute or divest our personal identities in order to depolarize? Certainly not. I think it does, however, require some honest reflection on how we define and relate to our various identities. Why do we get emotionally agitated about certain topics and not others? Why do debates about abortion cause some people such agitation, and some people not? Why gun control? Immigration? Transgender and sexuality issues? What is it about any particular topic, and how I identify with it, that triggers me? How does it define my in- and out-groups? And how does this constellation of thought, emotion, and behavior affect my personal well-being, relationships, social standing and security? As a result, how do I contribute to divisions or affiliations in my own social circles, and society at large through my words and actions? How much do I care about that last part?

Intrinsic psychological safety means feeling solidly grounded in my core values and the practices that manifest them—it’s a sense of quiet, confident, unassailability.  To me it means cultivating a growth mindset, confident that I am at the same time rooted down and branching out- embracing and navigating the paradox of personal conviction and intellectual humility and flexibility.  Challenging my beliefs then becomes a personal practice of learning, integrating, and cultivating complexity and depth to my opinions, beliefs, and perspectives.  I stir and knead, exercise and expand my mental elasticity and range.  Rather than diluting my positions, all of this training can actually strengthen my understanding, expression, and agility in defense of them.  It gives me the confidence to seek and welcome challenges, knowing that I have enough internal clarity to maintain my core values and also integrate important nuances that may edify them. It is a product of disciplined self-development.

In confident humility mindset, I understand that my position is not, in fact, the only ‘right’ one; it is simply one of many. “Everybody’s right, and only partially,” was one of my first life coaching lessons back in 2005, and has served me well. This mindset allows us to think of ourselves and our opinions as ‘also right.’ It frees us from the burden of having to prove ourselves or exert power over others to convert them. It opens space and time to find middle paths for creativity, collaboration, and connection.

Wonderful!  Now we know how to depolarize ourselves—how to gracefully (even joyfully) integrate personal conviction and intellectual flexibility, perhaps even to move towards advocacy without alienation.  So what holds us back from practicing these skills outwardly, vocally, especially within our own tribes?  Tune in to Part 3 on Extrinsic Psychological Safety, to consider consequences and rewards of standing up and speaking out.