The Status of Women, 1999-2019

IMG_1282

What happens for men when women speak Feminism?

I intend to ask this question to more men in my life from now on.  What do you hear as Feminism?  Where do you think it comes from?  What do you think women are trying to accomplish by talking about equity and representation?  What moves a man to ally with women in this movement?  What keeps him from doing so?  What are the risks, costs, and benefits for us all when he does and does not?

AP QUICK HITS THE 99ERS S SOC FILE USA CA

Women in Sports

The US Women have just won their fourth World Cup Soccer title, kicking balls and ass, I like to say.  What an accomplishment, and how far they’ve come since winning the first ever Women’s World Cup in 1991, the year I graduated high school.  I don’t follow soccer, but as an American woman, this victory carries meaning for me.  At halftime this morning I read about Brandi Chastain, the 1999 US World Cup champion midfielder who famously, spontaneously, took off her jersey in unadulterated celebration after firing the winning penalty kick in double overtime against China to win it all.  The New York Times featured her story yesterday, commenting on the evolution of our perceptions and treatment of female athletes over these 20 years:

In that pivotal moment of arrival for women’s team sports in the United States and around the world, viewers saw Chastain removing her jersey and twirling it like a lariat, spinning around and falling to her knees, pumping her arms in exultant triumph. What resulted was perhaps the most iconic photograph ever taken of a female athlete, a depiction of pure spontaneous joy.

It was a moment of freedom and liberation, Marlene Bjornsrud, a longtime women’s coach and an influential sports executive, once told me. She called it a “casting off the burden of everything that kept us down and said, ‘You can’t do that because you are a woman.’ It was a moment that screamed, ‘Yes, I can.’”

Title IX was signed into law by President Nixon in 1972, one year before I was born.  So I took it for granted that girls could play sports just like boys in school—not every sport, but most.  I also took for granted the inherent assumptions about women in athletics—that we cannot be as fast, as strong, or as competitive as men.  I have so much more appreciation now for icons like Billy Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Pat Summitt. I think about the WNBA, and women coaching in the NBA, NHL, and NFL, and I marvel at how far we have come.  Take a look at this timeline of women’s sports in the US to get a fuller perspective.  I know many will say we have a long way yet to go.  But today, let us joyfully celebrate all that we have accomplished already.  Wahoo!! [fist bump and dancing woman emojis]

 

Ortho women residents 1999-2013 jbjs jan 2012

Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, January 2012

Women at Work

I’m thinking about the culture of orthopaedic surgery.  In the twenty years since I graduated from medical school, I see more and more women in this field (as well as other surgical specialties), which makes me proud.  While women comprise only 5% of practicing orthopaedic surgeons, 15% of American orthopaedic residents are now women, which is roughly double the percentage in 1999.  But what’s it like to be a woman in orthopaedics?  How do these women present, perhaps differently, at work compared to in their personal lives?  Is it truly safe for them to be themselves as surgeons?  The American Orthopaedic Association held their annual meeting recently.  My orthopod friend returned from the conference and commented that the rare women leaders in his field seem ‘fierce’ and ‘tough’—but in a good way?  It struck him to wonder if they are just like that in general, or do they have to be that way to navigate their male-dominated specialty.  He wondered how they would be seen if they displayed sensitivity and emotion, “because a man can be seen as sensitive and kind” and not only does it cost him nothing, his social status is likely to be elevated because of it.  My friend was not sure this is the case for his female colleagues, and he seemed both empathetic and powerless at the idea.  Looks like gender parity may take a bit longer in medicine than in sports.

At work in general, women’s status varies considerably.  But research points to common issues such a 22% pay gap and too few women in leadership (5% of US corporate CEOs), though these are improving.  One need not look far for abundant evidence that having more women on the corporate team improves earnings and morale.  Much is also written on strategies for improving gender equity at work.  Two of my favorites are exit interviews and work-life balance initiatives for all employees, not just women.  But as I wrote last week, it’s not just about including women as participants in the workforce.  It’s about truly appreciating the diversity of experience, biology, and contribution that women bring to any group they serve.

 

561204_3707569082371_72213499_n

Women and Men

There is no way I can do justice to this topic in the remainder of this post.  So let me just share some ideas and resources I will continue to explore in the months and years to come.

I asked at the beginning what happens for men when women speak Feminism.  A corollary question is what happens for all of us when we hear the words ‘toxic masculinity’?  My guess is men get defensive and women get aggressive.  Personally I love the phrase because it’s so incisively descriptive.  But it can also be a flashpoint phrase, one that immediately incites conflict and emotional hijack.  Let me be clear: toxic masculinity does not imply that men and manhood are toxic by nature.  Quite the contrary, the phrase refers to a culture of expectations of men that is just as toxic for men as it is for women.  Male surgeons may well benefit from being sensitive and kind, but not too much so, lest they be seen as weak.  This is a vast oversimplification, by the way; the history and complexity of toxic masculinity are explored articulately here.

Readers of this blog know how much I love Brené Brown.  Her explanations of how shame (where toxic masculinity is born) manifests and organizes around gender—and why it is toxic for both men and women–are the most poignant and real.  Read her first hand comments to Ms. magazine here, and a stay-at-home dad writer’s interpretation of them here.  If you seek a nonjudgmental, objective, and real-life exploration of the complex dynamics between men and women, read The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly.  Sister (she’s not old enough to be Aunt) Brené’s books are the most accessible form of evidence-based, all-around relationship advice I have ever read, and I’m so grateful for her.  From the Ms. Interview:

What role do you think vulnerability played in the #MeToo movement?

Know what I love about the #MeToo movement?—and, me too—I thought until I was 25 or 30, that sexual harassment was just the price of entry.  The greatest casualty of trauma is the ability to be vulnerable. So this #MeToo movement is re-defining and re-claiming vulnerability, and putting vulnerability in the context it belongs in, which is power and courage. 

 What gives you hope?

The thing that scares me about the world today is the same thing that gives me hope. I believe we’re witnessing white male power over. It’s making its last stand right now. And it’s scary because last stands are dangerous, and people get very backed into a corner. I think this is the last stand, and that we’re going to see a shift, mercifully, from white male power to inclusive power with it too. And I think from that paradigm, we can do anything, change anything, and be anything. 

And it’s not just women who can claim agency against misogyny and sexism.  Men who identify as feminists serve as allies for gender equity and respect.  But men can also help themselves and each other break free from the restraints of machismo and chauvinism.  Movements like The Good Men Project and Evryman give men a forum for honest, vulnerable emotional expression and connection.  Just like women surgeons and corporate executives, all men need inclusive spaces where they can feel true belonging, where they are free to be all of themselves—hard emotions and all—for all our sakes.

Men I admire in this space include Nate Green, Ozan Varol, and David Brooks.

* * * * *

To lift my spirits here at the end of this long post, I’m listening to a song on repeat: Woman, Amen by Dierks Bentley.  It’s such a shining anthem of a man’s unabashed love and appreciation for his partner.  I can also imagine modifying the lyrics and hearing Faith Hill singing about her man Tim McGraw.

Thanks for reading to the end, friends.

Our relationships kill us or save us, and we really need to be better at taking care of each other, locally and globally.  We, men and women alike, are all in this together, inextricably, in sickness and in health, forever.

Only Love can save us.  Let’s get on it.

 

Insight While Driving to Work

IMG_4426

Training for Better Angels, it occurs to me:
Confidence in excellent communication skills in order to enter difficult conversations without bailing or lashing out… is akin to the core stability required to get into and out of a deep squat.
It’s the bending down, feet flat, head up, in control and not falling over, that is the challenge—not the forcing up in a quick, mindless burst of brute strength. Bearing the load all the way down and standing back up gracefully, without causing or suffering injury: that is where our real power lies, in the gym and in conversation.

See, Do, Teach

IMG_4409

NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

When did you first notice you were led well?  Who was it, what was the circumstance?

See

I was in 7th grade math class.  The teacher was Joe Alt.  I met him 33 years ago, when I was 12, and I still consider him one of my greatest and most important mentors.  He could teach anything and make it interesting, and we learned not only math and science, but how to be good people.  In a class that included both uber-nerd me and ultra-headbanger dude, he helped us both to see each other as people and get along so we could all learn.

Later I would find leadership role models in my athletic coaches, professors, program directors, committee colleagues, and hospital administrators.  At their best, these people were/are:

  • Attuned
  • Empathic
  • Reflective
  • Articulate
  • Intrinsically Motivated
  • Actively Engaged
  • Personal
  • Approachable
  • Genuine

I have also studied on my own, seeking guidance from sources like Benjamin and Rosamund Stone Zander, Simon Sinek, Brené Brown, Daniel Goleman, Chip and Dan Heath,  Rachel Naomi Remen, The Harvard Business Review, most recently Anthony Suchman, and, soon again, Marcus Aurelius.  I’m always looking for the next new or old related idea, the next dot to connect in order to draw my leadership map with more depth and detail.

Do

Recently I asked a new mentor what books he likes to read about leadership, organizations, etc.  He said he reads some, but prefers to simply do, always learning, adapting, applying, and evolving along the way.  I have had small leadership roles at school and work, in my professional society, as well as in my community, over the years.  They have all given me tremendous opportunities to practice what I read.  More and more, I see the value in getting my nose out of the books, looking up, and stepping forward.

Teach?

I spoke with a high school freshman athlete recently.  She plays two sports, both teams comprised of both upper and lower class(wo)men.  She contrasted the coaches’ personalities and styles, and how she learns about the respective sports as well as teamwork, integrity, etc.  We noted how much better it feels when the coach knows you personally, and pays attention to your state of mind as well as your performance.  The team with the less attuned coach will soon choose a captain for next year.  It’s usually a senior, perhaps regardless of leadership skill or potential.  She described the various candidates to me, and why she thought they would be good captains (or not).

I asked her whether the team feels like a true team, or more like just a group of individuals.  She said right now, it’s the latter.  I asked how she would show up if one of the less desirable candidates were named captain.  She had not really thought about it other than to continue working on her own sports skills.  I then found myself offering copious unsolicited advice:

You have a few choices, I told her.  First, you could remain an individual, holding your own goals as primary.  You may or may not improve, your team may or may not do well, and your personal contribution to the success of the whole will be proportional to your own individual performance.  Second, as you progress in your skills and newer kids join the team, you can help teach and mentor them.  You could observe the new captain, identify her weaknesses. If possible, and if you’re so inclined, you can fill in the gaps for the team—lead from within the pack.  You could help build morale, create a true team from its inside, cultivate relationships that will make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.  You could set your sights higher than your own personal achievement and really help the team succeed.  Third, you could take it to the next level by cultivating an advisory relationship with the captain herself.  If you have her trust, and exercise tact, you could help her see and maximize her strengths, navigate around her weaknesses—you can ‘coach up.’

The latter choices are, obviously, harder and more labor intensive.  I would also argue that they would make membership on the team exponentially more meaningful for everybody.  By serving as a connector among teammates (with boundaries, realistic expectations, and self-care, of course), this young athlete could make connectors of her teammates, too.  And a few years from now, if she herself is tapped to lead, she will have already earned her peers’ respect.  They’ll follow out of course; it will feel only natural.  And, they may then already be the cohesive team that she really wants to serve as leader.

IMG_4564

These ideas poured forth in a torrent of consciousness, forming sentences before I could actually think them.  As happens so often, I found myself saying words, advising someone else, that I myself needed to hear at exactly that moment.  Most of the time it’s about eating, sleep, or exercise.  This was an A-ha! moment on my personal leadership journey.

Now I see the true meaning behind the phrase, “See one, do one, teach one.”  It’s not about becoming a teacher.  It’s about always remaining a student, because the best way to truly understand anything is to try teaching it.

See, do, teach.  It’s not linear.  It is, no question, completely cyclic.

Bring It

DSC_0524

NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine

Had my knee MRI yesterday.  I had been looking forward to it for over a week, trying to predict what it would show.  I was thinking a serious meniscal tear, since I have had crackling in my knee for so long and I surely must have arthritis by now, from all the falling on it I did in my youth.  I lay perfectly still and started to get sore where I expected to feel medial meniscus pain.  I could not wait to know the results.  I just wanted to know what I’m dealing with, so I can figure out next steps, get moving.

Since it’s a weekend, I won’t know the radiologist’s report until tomorrow.  Suddenly part of me doesn’t really want to know.  What if it’s really bad and the only option to regain function is surgery?  What if it looks like I’ll be permanently disabled in some way, never able to get back to my previous level of activity?  What if that prognosis totally throws me off and I let myself go, become a sedentary lump, weigh over 300 pounds, and die in five years from heart disease and depression?  Truly, this could end my life, some poisonous voice hisses in the recesses of my mind.

But hubs is the ordering physician and he looked at the images with me tonight.  Lots of fluid/swelling.  Bruises on both bone ends of the joint.  Good news, the menisci are intact and look normal!  Woo hooooo!!  Posterior cruciate ligament also looks normal—thick, uniformly black (swelling and inflammation are light on this image), well-positioned.  Can’t find the ACL.  Huh.  He says 10% of people don’t have one.  That’d be cool, because if I never had one then it couldn’t be torn.  But the bone bruises alone are not enough to explain the swelling and pain.  So either it’s so inflamed that the fluid obliterates it on the MRI, or I have completely ruptured it and the little stumps have retracted out of view.

I had wondered which I would rather have, a serious meniscal or ACL injury.  I had leaned toward the latter, because the ACL can be fixed.  Meniscal tears really don’t heal; the body smooths them over somewhat with time, but the end result is just less cartilage, faster wear, and more tear.  The problem with an ACL injury, however, is that it increases the risk of future meniscal tears.  So either way, the knee will never be the same and now I have to deal with it.

We will wait for the official report, and I may see the sports orthopod.  Here’s what I don’t want from that appointment: For him to tell me, “Cathy, you should stop playing volleyball or anything that requires jumping, sudden movements, or the like.  You’re too old and your knee will just be hurt again.”  I will be polite, but in my mind I will think, “You can’t tell me what to do, I’ll play f*ing volleyball if I want to, and I will do it with or without your help.”  What I would love for him to say is this:

“Cathy, here is what’s going on in your knee.  It’s likely that these factors contributed to the injury (lists possible risk factors that he knows from my history), and also it was a freak accident that can happen to anyone, especially jumping female athletes (which is true).  It’s a good thing you’re pretty healthy to start with, and that you had gotten fit these last few years.  What do you want to do now?”

I’ll tell him that I really want to get back on the court and play.  I’ll tell him I want to keep doing all the training I’ve been doing: elliptical, Kangoo running, TRX, pistols, golf, and Betty Rocker workouts.  I want to take up new things like Orange Theory, kickboxing, martial arts maybe, and who knows what else?  I want to be the most active person I can be, and I want to JUMP.  I’ll tell him that I want to be responsible about it; I’m not going to ignore the risks and be stupid.  I want to know the risks, the evidence as it applies to me as specifically as possible, the 44 year-old mom with lax ligaments and super-flat feet.

Then I hope he tells me, “Okay then here’s the plan.  We gotta rehab the knee really well.  Ya gotta be patient.  Keep up with your trainer, strengthen all the muscles around your knees, continue working on core, posture, and form.  When you start jumping again make sure you know better how to land, train that muscle memory and get it down, own it.  Take your time, and take it easy when you start again.  There are braces you can use when you play that will help keep the knee stable.  And you still might hurt yourself again, there’s no way to predict what will happen. But if that’s what you want to do, I’ll do my best to help you get there.”

Because here’s the deal, my friends:  I own my decisions, but I need help to make them in the most responsible and informed way possible.  I don’t need someone paternalistically telling me what to do, how to live my life.  I need the doctor to explain to me the risks, benefits, and costs of what I may want to try.  Then I need to him to trust that I will make the best decision for myself, based on my own core values and goals.  I understand that nobody can predict the future.  But I also have a clear vision of the future I want.  I want to live a very active life, able to try new things and connect mind with body with spirit, and with other people.  I want to look back in 10, 20, and 30 years and say, “I did what I wanted to do, I made my decisions with the best information I had at the time.”  I may hurt myself again.  I may end up with a knee replacement before age 60, and never run or play volleyball again after that.  But if I get there having thoroughly assessed the risks of my actions, having taken all reasonable steps to proceed safely, and having continued to have fun and enjoy my mobility as long as I could, then hopefully I will regret very little.  I would much rather live this scenario, than get to that age wondering, “What more could I have done?  Did I sell myself short?”

This is how I discuss decision making with my patients, particularly when it comes to screening.  Their decisions must originate from their personal values and health goals, not mine or anyone else’s.  How do they understand the risks, and which worst case scenario of screening or not screening, treating or not treating, will they regret less?  A very athletic yet osteoporotic 65 year-old woman really does not want to take medication.  So we review her daily dietary calcium, vitamin D, protein, and vitamin K intake.  We make sure she continues weight bearing exercise every day.  We pay attention to balance, flexibility, strength, vision, and fall risks.  We reassess her risks and goals every year to make sure that we are still on the path she chooses for herself.  I present her with as much evidence as I can, for efficacy of medication, her personal fracture risk, and potential consequences of fracture.  In the end the decision is hers and hers alone; I serve as consultant and guide.

Meanwhile, knowing what’s likely happening in my knee gives me peace and confidence.  Now I can make a plan.  I’m convinced this is why my knee feels better tonight than it has in days, although the ibuprofen I took this afternoon probably also helps.  I have a new compression sleeve that fits under my dress pants.  I can get back to my workouts, and maybe add on a little every week.  My motivation to eat healthy just got a fierce boost (Betty Rocker really helps with this—I have no financial interests in her business, I just really like what she does and how she does it).  I’ll start physical therapy soon.  No volleyball for likely 6 months.  But I got this.  Bring it.

The Doctor Becomes the Patient

DSC_0350

Grandma Has Hurt Herself.

Tonight at volleyball, I was given the perfect set, my timing was getting better, I sprang and hit the ball over the net… I think it landed in, but I was distracted by the crunching sensation and noise I felt in my left knee, and then breathtaking pain as I landed the jump.  Immediately I went rolling, writhing on the floor, lamaze breathing long and slow (nice how that comes in handy at times like this).

As I sat sidelined, the medical inventory began:  No torsive forces, just a buckle.  No ankle or hip pain, only knee.  It’s the bad knee, had similar pain landing a little jump a few months ago, though not nearly this bad.  Pain primarily posterior, deep, left of center, worse with knee extension and dorsiflexion.  Anteromedial joint line pain with weight bearing.  Immediate but mild swelling/effusion.  Hmmm, maybe medial meniscus, possibly also PCL strain/tear?  When should I get the MRI?  How long before I can start PT?  Where is that knee sleeve I got before?  600mg ibuprofen STAT.

The young people were so loving, gathered around asking me where it hurt, getting ice, helping me up, grabbing blocks to put my leg up, glancing over empathetically as I RICEd.  I felt cared for and also embarrassed.

Not just embarrassed.  I felt guilty, maybe even ashamed.  What had happened?  I’ve been training, I’m a good jumper, what did I do wrong?  Was it karmic payback?  I left home just as my kid was struggling with some homework—but nothing I thought she couldn’t handle.  Or maybe I had been getting too cocky that I could actually do this at my age?  Just yesterday I posted videos of my most recent progress on the TRX—I was openly bragging–“toot-toot!” I wrote gleefully.  Or it was an error in judgment: I have not slept enough this week, and I knew I was tired before I went tonight.  But I wanted to go meet my new friends, I wanted to play and have fun.

The frustration came all at once, and with considerable force.  Thankfully I had a friend nearby with a consoling ear and some crutches to lend.  All athletes get injured, she said.  I didn’t do anything wrong.  Yes, I’ve been training, and I was also weekend warrioring it all these months.  This has been my problem knee for at least 15 years, maybe it was going to happen anyway.  It’s still interesting to watch, almost from outside myself, the emotional lava lamp of fear, regret, anxiety, dread, catatrophization, and sorrow.

Experience and maturity, however, make me optimistic.  It’s a temporary setback, and I have resources available to me for recovery, growth, and even enhancement.  Now I get to learn how to use crutches, and I can relate much better to my patients with knee injuries.  I also get to test my newly formed theory that though we may slow down in general with age, we need not resign ourselves to inevitable and morose decline.  Patients ask me often, what should they expect to be able to do at this age or that, how can they know their limits?  For a long time I had no good answer.  But as I have regained strength, endurance, stability and mobility these last few years (tonight notwithstanding), I now tell them: It depends on what you want and how much you invest.  My 1977 Oldsmobile will not run like my 2012 Highlander.  But if I really want to drive that thing, I can put in all the special care and maintenance required and make it roadworthy.  It’s the same with our bodies.  They are incredibly resilient and adaptive, and also mortal.  So we must Fuel and Train, then Rest and Recover appropriately.

I guess I pushed past my current limits tonight.  Setback acknowledged.  I don’t regret the last five months–I made new friends and played and had fun!  I anticipate a high-learning road to recovery.  And I think I’ll get back before they forget me.

 

 

Aging Rocks.

IMG_1702

My high school friend went tubing with her kids, and her body let her know the next day, it was not happy.  As so many of us do when we realize life milestones, she posted to Facebook, “I must remember that I am closer to 40 than 20.”  Before I could type my, “Amen, sister!” another friend astutely pointed out, “Might I remind you that you are closer to 50 than 20.”  OUCH!  And, true.  We were 38 at the time.

This year I turn 44.  Sigh.  And wooo hoooooooo!!  Aging kinda sucks, and it also freaking rocks.

***

Recently our babysitter invited me to volleyball night at her church.  I played in high school and college; it’s how the hubs and I got together.  We relived those days briefly in 2015 when some local people organized a loose pick-up group.  Like many such groups, the level of play varied, and we had fun, but weren’t challenged much.  I expected the same last week, but nope.  I walked into a small gym filled with people averaging, by appearance and vernacular, about half my age.  I watched wide-eyed as they leapt Michael Jordan high, serving, hitting, blocking, and digging better than any team I had ever played for or against.  AWESOME!!!  I finally get to play, after all these years!  And yikes.  I got a little nervous.  These people were intense, skilled, and young.  “Take a seat, Grandma,” I imagined them saying.  But I was a guest of a regular, so I had a little street cred.  And, everybody was very welcoming and friendly.

I stretched discreetly on the narrow sidelines, something we old people must do to prevent injury.  I reminded myself to take it easy, no need to go all out and pull something.  A few more full circle arm wheels and test jumps, and I was ready to go.  I felt my heart pounding a little as I stepped onto the court.  I was one of two women on my team, and my sitter-friend (the other woman) was very encouraging.  I served underhand, as I can no longer rocket it overhand like I could 30 years ago (working on this).  Two thirds of the way through the night my right knee started to get a bit wobbly, and I sometimes felt a strange zinging sensation up and down my lateral thigh.  Grandma, I thought.  It’s usually my left knee that aches.  This was a new pain, with no attributable trigger.

I had so much fun.  The general skill level ranged wider than I had initially observed, though it still skewed high.  I estimate that I ranked in the upper half, maybe upper 40%, rustiness not withstanding.  Everybody was mindful to make sure we all touched the ball, a very egalitarian league.  As such, I got to pass, set, dig, and even hit a few.  I held my own, and it felt good.  One young man gave me the compliment of my month when he said I seemed ‘not that old’ and ‘nimble.’  I could have hugged him.  I went home a little sore, and more than a little high.

***

I credit the last three years of fitness training for my utter lack of pain the next day.  After all, I’m doing things on the TRX that I could not have done at 16, and I’ve exercised 5 days a week, most weeks for the last 18 months.  I’ve relearned how to ride a bike, I can run 5K as a casual jog, and I’m as strong as I’ve ever been in my adult life.  I just need slightly more maintenance nowadays.

But the best part of the night was mental.  25 years ago my worry over what people thought of me loomed over my consciousness in a way that robbed my fun.  Back then every mistake I made on the court chipped away at my confidence, and more mistakes inevitably ensued.   Sometimes I’d have an “on” night, and I always had enough fun to keep me coming back, but too often I’d go home wondering if my teammates regretted my presence.

No more.  I no longer have anything to prove to anyone but myself.  I’m just here to have fun and maybe make myself better—and I can only do that if I’m with people who play better than I do.  I’ll own my mistakes and not beat myself over them—we all mess up sometimes.  I know what I can and cannot do.  I own all of me, and I’m okay.  Looking back, my self-defeating attitude was probably worse for team morale and performance than any dig I missed.  Not anymore!

Maybe some people already had this kind of self-efficacy in adolescence.  I can recall a few peers in my youth who had that calm, collected aura about them.  It wasn’t arrogance or superiority.  Rather, it was an unassuming and authentic self-assuredness, which often translated into a generosity that attracted others to their orbit.  That’s how I feel now, and I think this manner of self-confidence comes most organically with age.  It’s the same confidence I see even more in my older, wiser friends.  I might have run faster, jumped higher, and hit stronger in my teens and twenties, but I would never go back.  Life is too good now, with decades of accumulated experience and integrated learning.

My kids were there last week.  They watched me participate with enthusiasm, mistakes and all.  When I commented that I might not have helped my team much (we lost all our games), my daughter sounded surprised.  “But you’re good!” she said.  Like I said, I left more than a little high.

To Train Or Not To Train

photo 1

My sister and brother-in-law run marathons.  No, wait, they are elite marathon-running machines.  By next weekend, they will have run 150 marathons between them in just a few years, including Ironmans and ultramarathons, in 39 states and at least 7 countries.  They lead training groups for Team to End AIDS and enjoy a loyal following of running enthusiasts and friends.  So you can imagine my honor when they recently told me, “You could totally run a marathon, Cathy.  You’re already more fit than a lot people who start training.”

For a moment I actually considered it, because wouldn’t that be so cool, to enter that elite circle?  Then I quickly remembered: I. Hate. Running.  …For now.  But it got me thinking recently–talking politics may be like marathon training.  Some people really like it and do it well (by ‘well’ I mean they are informed, articulate, respectful, and engaging with people from all points of view—their discourse is elevated).  They resemble my sister and brother-in-law: athletes who consistently perform at the top of their training, with few or no injuries, leading others to follow in similar aspirations.

Other people, however, would sooner feed themselves through a wood chipper than strap on a pair of running shoes, or engage in political discussions.

Most of us are somewhere in the middle, I suspect.  I can run a few miles with my trainer if she makes me–the conversation and scenery distract me and the time goes by faster.  And I know I can slow down or take a rest if I have to–it’s safe.  But I have many other preferred exercise activities.  Could we consider talking politics as the elite marathoning of communication?  It is so hard to do well!

When I think of long distance running my mouth goes dry.  I get short of breath and my knees hurt already.  I feel the incredible slog, one heavy step after another–not at all like what I imagine my family feels, bounding weightlessly like antelopes toward their next PR.  I experience a version of the fight-or-flight response, a visceral sensation of threat: I’ll have blisters everywhere, I’ll never make it to the end, they’ll have to carry me, I’ll have a heart attack and die!

Maybe some people have a similar reaction to politics?  I don’t know enough, it’s too complicated.  It’s overwhelming, I’ll look ignorant, people will judge and shame me before I can even finish a thought.  It’s all so emotional, I can’t handle that, it will only escalate into conflict, my relationships will all be at risk, I’ll lose all my friends!

As you may have read, I have been trying to get some conservative friends to engage face to face.  I am genuinely curious about their points of view; I want to understand.  I want to practice my skills—curiosity, openness, empathy, identifying shared interests, withholding judgment.  Two invitations were initially met with a non-response.  After a follow up call or two, I am scheduled to meet one set of friends for dinner this week, and the other said he was too busy.  I feel like I’m dragging them out running when they would much rather play golf or go bowling.

I have realized: we don’t all have to keep up with every day’s new political freak shows.  We don’t all need to be the debate champions of our particular ideology.  Not everybody has to be a marathoner.

HOWEVER:

We all need exercise.  The body is built to move.  Regular physical activity, as we all know, reduces our risks of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.  Did you also know it can decrease depression, dementia, and even cancer?  So pick your sport—just do some kind of movement every day!

Similarly, even if we don’t all talk politics, we all need effective communication skills, especially in the arenas of conflict resolution, negotiation, parenting (which encompasses them all), and the like.  We are social beings—we only survive by cooperating and living well within our tribes, and by tribes living well among one another.  That can only happen if we practice getting along.

So if you’re not a runner/marathoner, what do you do?  What is your thing, how often do you engage, and what keeps you coming back?  If you hate talking politics, how else are you already a great communicator?

Maybe you’re a natural at getting your toddler/tween/teen to see the wisdom of the rules and getting their buy-in to follow them.

Maybe you can always help your boss and coworker iron out their differences because you can understand both sides (are you in HR?).

Maybe you like to debate the merits of the Marvel Comic Universe vs. DC—and you could argue both sides because it’s just more interesting that way.

We all have areas where we shine, where we contribute to the tribe through words and actions.

I have picked up some tips along the way:

  1. Validate people’s feelings, even if you don’t agree with their position or behavior.
  2. Stay open to the 2% truth of an opposing philosophy or idea.
  3. Withhold judgment on the whole person even though they espouse an ideology you despise, at least until you know from multiple encounters that they have no shred of kindness or humanity in them.
  4. Look for what you have in common with people, and choose to focus there more than on how you differ.

So even if you’re not an elite running machine like my sister and brother-in-law, or you’re not your community’s foremost political pundit, know that your other training matters.

I may complete a marathon someday…  Never say never.  For now I’m happy to stick with my TRX, kettle bells, 7 minute and Betty Rocker workouts (once again, I have no financial interests in any of these businesses).  I appreciate my family’s invitation to run, and I respectfully decline at this time.  Similarly, I will try to be more mindful about inadvertently pressuring people to talk politics.  It’s never meant to be adversarial, only a bid for connection—I’m looking for training buddies!

I don’t need everybody to talk politics.  But I do need everybody to practice excellent communication, especially in political discourse.

We all need that.