Love You Into Being

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A couple of weeks ago I met my new medical students.  These 10-12 trainees will be my small group for the next two years.  We will meet monthly to discuss the soft stuff of medical training—hierarchy, tribalism, death and dying, medical errors, difficult patients, etc.  Some call it “third year medical student support group.”  This is my 6th year of the pleasure and privilege (I inherited my first group halfway through, when their previous preceptor moved out of state).

With each successive group I am ever more amazed at the students’ level of insight.  They articulate compassion, humility, and maturity that I don’t think I had at their level of training. Or maybe it’s because we did not have classes like this to explore such things when I came up (or maybe I don’t remember?).  More and I more I see my role as facilitator more than teacher.  I am not here to impart medical knowledge.  Rather, it is my job to stimulate exploration, conversation, and meaning.  It’s so freeing, really—there is no standardized test to teach to.  And yet I see it as my responsibility to help prepare these gifted young people to face the greatest challenge and reward of the profession: human relationships.

I feel no fear or trepidation.  We cannot ‘fail’ at this class, any of us.  Because the point of it is simply for everybody to participate, contribute, consider, and learn—myself included.  Each month the students are given questions to answer in the form of a blog post.  For example, “Recall an example of inspiring or regrettable behavior that you witnessed by a physician.  Describe the situation, and its impact on you, the team, and/or the patient.”  I read them all and facilitate discussion, tying together common themes and asking probing questions.  My primary objective is to help them maintain the thoughtfulness and humanity that led them to medicine in the first place.  Medical training has evolved in the past 20 years, for the better in some ways, not so much in others.  One way we do much better nowadays is recognizing the hidden curriculum, and shining light on its effects, both positive and negative, through classes like this.

We all have those teachers who made a difference in our lives—or at least I hope we all do.  I have multiple: Mrs. Cobb, 4th grade; Mr. Alt, 7th grade math; Ms. Townsend (now Ms. Anna), 7th grade English; Ms. Sanborn, 7th grade social studies; Mrs. Stahlhut, 9th grade geometry; Mrs. Summers, 10th grade English; Coach Knafelc, varsity volleyball; Dr. Woodruff, primary care preceptor; Dr. Roach, intern clinic preceptor; Dr. Tynus, chief resident program director.  My mom is one of these teachers, also.  She leads nursing students in their clinical rotations.  I have seen her student feedback forms—they love her.  And it wasn’t until I heard her talk about her students that I realized why they love her and what makes her so effective—she loves them first.  Teaching is often compared to parenting.  Our parents, at their best, see our potential and love us into our best selves.  They cheer us, support us, redirect us, and admonish us.  They show us the potential rewards of our highest aspirations.  If we’re lucky, they role model their best selves for us to emulate.

All of my best teachers did (do) this for me.  I’m friends with many of them to this day, and I still learn from them in almost every encounter.  I love them because I feel loved by them.  They held space for my ignorance and imperfections.  I always knew that they knew that my best self was more than the last paper I wrote, the last test I aced, or the last patient encounter I botched.  To them, my peers and I were not simply students.  We were fellow humans on a journey of mutual discovery, and they were simply a little farther along on the path.

This is my aspiration as a teacher, to live up to the example of all those who loved me into the best version of myself today.  This kind of love allows for growth and evolution, from student to colleague, to friend, and fellow educator.  This is not something attending physicians typically express to medical students, positive evolution of medical education notwithstanding.  But when I met this new group, I was overcome by love for them.  So I told them.  “If you take away nothing else from our two years together, I want you to have felt loved by me.  I wish to love you into the best doctors you can be.  That is my only job here.”  Or something like that.  It was impulsive and possibly high risk.  But it was the most honest thing I could say in that moment, my most authentic expression of my highest goal for my time with them.  I only get to see them once a month, and I want them to be crystal clear about what I am here to do.  We have lots to cover these two years, so much to learn and apply.  And love is the best thing I can offer to hold us all up through it.

Support for the Inner Work

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Things were a little crazy this week.  I have an idea for a post and still have not sat down to write it out.  But I want to share something that came out on my Facebook page (of course) tonight.  One of the reasons I love writing is that insights pop out when you least expect them.  Writing exchanged with others is even better, because those insights are then shared, and their meaning amplifies.

I posted this article from the Washington Post yesterday: “Nearly half of liberals don’t even like to be around Trump supporters.”  It’s a summary of a recent Pew Research Center survey, which finds that 47% of liberal Democrats “say that if a friend supported Trump, it would actually put a strain on their friendship.”  It posits, among other things, that liberals are less tolerant of dissenting ideas because they are clustered in urban areas, lending to louder echo chambers.  By contrast, only 13% of Republicans answered that “a friend’s support of Hillary Clinton would strain their friendship.”

From the survey report:…Nearly nine months after the election, most people (59%) say it is ‘stressful and frustrating’ to talk about politics with people who have a different opinion of Trump than they do; just 35% find such conversations ‘interesting and informative.'”

I consider myself a socially heavily left-leaning, fiscally centrist Independent, but I identify more with liberals than conservatives, by a large margin.  This article made me sad, that my ‘tribe’ shows itself to be much more intolerant and judgmental than I would like.

I posted this comment along with the article:

Ooohh, so much data here, so much potential for blame, and also for self-exploration. Humbling, no question.
“Be extra kind with your comments on this one please, friends. No need to reopen barely scabbed wounds. I mean for my page to be a safe place for all of us to engage. We are all in it together, and the sooner we *all* figure out how to deal with 45 and one another, the better we will all be.
“Also, I’m bummed that Asians are always left out of the data set.”

I got some comments from my liberal friends about how hard it is to talk to Trump supporters, so much so that they avoid talking politics with those friends altogether.  But one friend exemplified my aspiration for all of us.  She wrote:

“… I recently had dinner with a very close friend who voted for Trump. Typically I think I’m a really good listener, listening with curiosity and a desire to raise the conversation and all involved to a higher level. However, when our conversation turned to politics I found myself cutting her off, getting defensive and bordering on being critical of her. I was horrified by my own behavior. I think this article hits on it – the support or opposition of Trump feels like less of a political stance and more of a statement of a person’s values and morals. I don’t think that’s necessarily true- I think a large population of Trump voters (my friend included) were actually voting against Washington more than for Trump. While I can’t get behind Trump I can get behind a vote to change the system. I wonder what might happen if more of us looked for what we can stand behind together?! Thank you for continuing to be a voice for this movement!”

Exactly!  Immediately I felt connected to my friend in a higher calling, and a shared struggle.  I replied:

“(My dear friend), I derive so much of my strength and curiosity from you. How many of us can own up publicly about our own flaws and failures, like you did here? And I know you know I use the word failure in the most empathetic and loving, mutually understanding way. I think that is the first step–complete humility and openness to our own imperfection. It’s so fucking hard. And I’m so lucky to have friends like you, (these four other dear friends), and others… I know now, better late than never, that we cannot do this work without unwaveringly reliable support, no matter how motivated we are.  And for those of us who are already well-supported, I think it’s our responsibility to look outward and support others. You never know when or where someone may be standing on the edge of openness, and when your small gesture of encouragement may nudge them on. Thank you for your loving support, my soul sister!”

It really is true, we cannot dig deep and bring out our best selves by ourselves.  We are meant to hold one another up and accountable, to bring out the best in each other.  It breaks my heart when I interview patients, and learn how sparse and frail their emotional support networks are.  There is no stereotype for this scenario, it can happen to the best of us.  Past experiences, circumstances, timing, life events—they can all combine to undermine our relationships, thereby weakening our capacity for self-awareness and exploration.  So we fall back on default modes of defensiveness, righteousness, denial, and blame.  Whether it’s quitting smoking, sticking to a healthy eating plan, or elevating our political discourse, we are truly stronger together.

I share this tonight because I so admire my friend for owning her whole self.  I am so grateful to her for sharing her imperfections and vulnerability with humility and hopefulness.  She gives me strength to keep going, despite how fucking hard it is.  And I hope I can do the same for many, many others.

Walking the Talk

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The Journey and the Struggle

18 months ago I wrote about my plan for maximizing menopause preparedness.  As with so many missions, this one has experienced both successes and failures.  Since January 2016, I have grooved my exercise routine in the most awesome way.  I am all over the TRX, doing Spiderman push-ups, incline presses, pistols and more.  I get my cardio intervals and I’m foam rolling.  I feel stronger now than at any time since high school, and I’m proud of this accomplishment.

*sigh*

The eating, on the other hand, continues to be a challenge.  Earlier this year a patient looked at me without expression, and stated bluntly that I had gained 8.7 pounds since the last time he saw me.  Right after that’s kind of inappropriate, I thought, well, he’s right, I have been gaining weight.  Last March I wrote about weight loss strategy, thinking mainly about my exercise habit formation.  Sadly, my own weight has gone opposite to the desired direction, despite an honest attempt at adherence to my own advice.  Evidence suggests that weight loss really is about 80% diet and 20% exercise.  But sometimes you can only focus on one thing at a time.

Back in 2008, when I finished nursing, I thought, I can get my body back!  I knew I was not going to exercise, and I had no energy to police my food choices.  But I also knew I was eating too much, so I decided to just cut my portions in half.  It felt easy, decisive, and empowering.  I lost 25 pounds in 9 months, and got down to my wedding weight.  But eventually I acknowledged that though I was thin, I was squishy.  So I connected with my trainer in 2014, the primary goal being to get moving without injuring myself.  Right now I’m up 17# since my nadir in 2009, though I’m much more fit than the last time I lived at this weight.

Talking the Walk

I’ve always had a love-love relationship with food, and it shows in my weight/habitus.  I notice also that my own state of mind and body has influenced the advice I offer to patients.  Before I exercised regularly I spoke to patients a lot more about diet; now it’s more balanced.  One patient brought it up recently.  He asked, “What about the doctors who smoke, or the obese ones, how can they advise anybody about healthy habits?”  I’ve thought a lot about it, so I was ready to answer.  To me, there are three main options, all of which I have tried.

Disclaim.  We doctors can rely on our authority to tell people what to do to get healthier.  They notice our fat rolls, or smell cigarette smoke on us.  They see the dark circles under our eyes and surmise that we don’t sleep enough.  Maybe they can tell we don’t exercise.  But we admonish them to eat less and move more.  We say (subconsciously) to ourselves, “Do what I say, not what I do.”

Avoid.  Rather than give lifestyle advice at all, we can focus on prescriptions and referrals.  We feel we have no place instructing patients to eat more leaves, go to the gym, or quit smoking, when we don’t even do so ourselves.  So we don’t even bother, feeling like hypocrites.

I think both of these responses are rooted in shame and perfectionism.  And I think we should not fault physicians for choosing them—that would be meta-shaming–never helpful.  These are normal, human responses to our professional training and expectations.  Physicians have long held positions of authority and expertise.  Until very recently, our relationships with patients were mostly paternalistic.  But with burgeoning access to information, a culture evolving (rightly) toward patient autonomy, and physicians experiencing historically high levels of burnout and suicide, we cannot afford to burden ourselves with the illusion that we must be perfect in order to be credible.

Connect.  I think the healthiest response, for both patients and physicians, is for us doctors to acknowledge our own struggles; to empathize with the difficulty, the conflict, and the utter disappointment of not being able to control our actions and choices as we would like.  I think patients don’t expect us to be perfect.  But they do want us to be human and relatable.  I often find myself saying, “I know that feeling,” or, “Yep, that’s my weakness, too,” or, “Oh, and what about x-y-z?  That’s my problem!”  Only once has a patient said to me, “Shame on you!”  He was a perfectionist himself; I didn’t take it personally.

I stress eat. I eat when I’m bored.  I eat late at night, and I love sugar, starch, salt, and fat.  The struggle is real, and I know it all too well.  So when I ask you, “What small changes can you commit to in the next month?” believe me, I’m asking myself also.  And if you tell me something that has worked for you, I’ll probably try it.  I still think my ‘4 A’s of goal setting’ apply: Assessable, Actionable, Attainable, and Accountable.  I just haven’t found my 4A formula for eating yet.  But lately I have taken a more lighthearted approach to healthy eating trials.  Nothing is life or death, and I know iterative changes are best.  If one thing doesn’t work, hopefully I can learn something and move on to the next.  No dessert on weekdays.  Vegetarian on days I work.  No eating after 8pm.  No starch at dinner…  Meh, none of it seems to stick yet.  Even my cut-it-in-half strategy doesn’t appeal to me these days.  It’s so frustrating!  And it’s also okay, because I know I’m doing my best, just like my patients are.  We can all just take it a little more lightly, one step at a time.

So by the time menopause actually hits, I’m confident that I will be prepared to meet it, with grace and maybe a little irreverence.  I’m learning to judge myself (and thus others) a little more gently.  I’m learning to love my body, whatever shape it’s in.  After all, it’s the only one I’ll have this time around, and I need to maintain it for the long haul.  Turns out, my patients have been my best companions and consultants on the journey.

 

 

 

 

“Friendversary”

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It’s all worth it, hallelujah!

Those of you who read this blog regularly know that I spend inordinate amounts of time on Facebook.  I struggle with the balance–hours spent face to phone reading articles, engaging with friends over politics, healthcare, and nature photos, and also work, chores, and quality time with the family.  One of the people I interact with most meaningfully online is a high school classmate.  He and I were friendly acquaintances back then, and I assumed at graduation that I would never see him and most of my classmates again.  I will call him Al.

A while ago, through a mutual Facebook friend, I saw a post by Al saying that he wished to have civil conversations on politics with people who did not share his views.  I immediately sent a friend request, which he promptly accepted.  My rule is that I will be friends with people on FB who are already my friends, or with whom I want to actively cultivate friendships.  Al was definitely the latter, based solely on his proclaimed desire for civil discourse.  This week was our two year Facebook Friendversary.  I know because he shared the notification, which I had not received.

In the first year our exchanges could be awkward, and sometimes felt tense (on my end).  I noticed that while I often asked him to elaborate on his thoughts and positions, he rarely asked me.  I often felt unheard and lectured to.  I considered giving up on the relationship.  Why bother, I thought, we live in separate states, we disagree on everything, and it’s just too stressful—I’m not even sure he cares what I think.  A year ago I posted about a conversation we had about white male privilege.  I decided to maintain our online friendship because despite the tension and discomfort, the exchange had given me new insights into managing the tension and discomfort.

These two years we have discussed transgender bathroom legislation, affirmative action, unconscious gender bias, racism, and climate change, among other things.  We have always been civil, and conversations feel more relaxed and congenial these days.  Al types more words now than he used to, he asks me what I think about things, and has expressed more consideration for my point of view in this second year.  It moved me when he wrote that when his coworker came to work distraught and crying over the presidential election, he hugged her.  [For the record, my friend is a Republican and not necessarily a Trump supporter.]  Throughout our intereactions, I have always remembered my fundamental assumptions of this man, whom I don’t actually know that well: That he is a kind and honest person, that he wants all people to enjoy happy, healthy lives, that he has natural unconscious biases as I do (and these do not make us bad people), and that he is sincerely interested in my point of view.

Our most recent exchange almost brought me to tears because I finally felt fully seen, heard, and understood by this person who barely knew me 25 years ago, lives 800 miles away, and whose life experiences lie surely on the other end of any spectrum from mine.  I share the thread below.

So many people decry social media, and rightfully so.  It’s too easy to descend into mindless flaming and impulsive ad hominem attacks from the safety of a screen and keyboard.  And I still struggle with the time sink and distraction.  But today I feel good about my SoMe usage.  To me, this two year, ‘virtual’ friendship I have cultivated feels as real as any other.  I hope Al feels similarly.  I look forward to the next two years and beyond on Facebook, and perhaps an in-person encounter in the foreseeable future.

***

On Being Wrong

CC:  OH MY GOD YEESSS!!
If you are serious about or remotely interested in self-awareness and connecting better with your fellow humans, understanding this idea, even if only intuitively, is a fundamental requirement.

https://wwwted.com/talks/julia_galef_why_you_think_you_re_right_even_if_you_re_wrong

[Julia Galef’s TED talk on soldier vs. scout mindset, and how holding either influences how and whether we examine our beliefs]

 

AL:  Have you seen this?

https://www.ted.com/talks/kathryn_schulz_on_being_wrong

[Kathryn Schultz’s TED talk on embracing our fallibility]

 

CC:  I have not!  Will view soon!

AL:  I eagerly await your thoughts on it. It’s dang near life changing.

CC:  I watched it! And I will happily tell you my thoughts, but since you posted it and made the ‘damn near life changing’ claim, I request that you go first. And if you could also comment on the talk from the original post–feel free to go all expository–that would be great, also! I promise to reply in kind!

AL:  It was the line that feeling wrong is the same a feeling right. And the idea at how unreliable your feelings are. But I really like questioning one’s sense of rightness.

CC:  Follow up question: how has this talk changed your own approach to ‘feeling right,” or how you engage with people with whom you disagree?

AL:  I can’t say I’ve completely abandoned my feeling of rightness. It’s just so nice to feel right. But I try to loosen my grip on the feeling of rightness and make fewer assumptions.

CC:  Thank you. I hear you, it is so delicious to feel right–to feel *righteous*… And I like this, “loosen my grip on the feeling of rightness” (and righteousness?). What assumptions are you making less, may I ask?

AL:  I can’t think of general areas right off the top of my head. But more often than before I try to remind myself I don’t have all the facts and there could be something I don’t know. This has to do more with interpersonal interactions. Like I try not to act on my initial assumption of someone else’s motivations.

[I ‘loved’ this reply]

 

CC:  I am not sure you could ever know how happy it makes me to read this. This is all I ever want from people–to just slow down, withhold judgment *a little*, especially about one other’s motivations. It has taken me too long to learn that everybody has a unique and VALID personal story, and that elements of that story always influence how we approach any problem or circumstance, for better or worse. The more open we can be to one another in this way, the fewer and less contentious our conflicts will be, I am CONVINCED. And, it’s sooooo much easier said than done. And, the first step is an awareness of its importance. The second step is an intention and commitment to practice, no matter how many times we fail, and/or others fail. I have to go see a patient now… Maybe I’ll write more. But really, I’m almost in tears right now. I feel vindicated, in a way. Thank you.

[Al ‘loved this reply.]

Everyday Power and Influence

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If you wonder how physicians think and feel, about anything and everything related to medicine, healthcare, economics, parenting, relationships, and life in general, check out KevinMD, an expertly curated blog by physicians all around the world.  I recently read a heartening and important piece on gender equality in medicine.  A pediatrician husband wrote about the stark differences in assumptions about work-life balance for men and women, in “What Does Your Husband Think of You Being a Surgeon?”  Then I came across another article by a male cardiologist, whose wife is also a physician, entitled, “The Gender Gap in Cardiology Is Embarrassing.”  Both men’s wives delayed their medical training, and these husbands bore witness to our culture’s implicit gender bias against their life partners.  I strongly encourage you to read both pieces; they are short and poignant.

—- Please click on the links and at least skim the articles, before continuing here. —-

Now, consider how much more weight and influence these pieces carry, simply because they are written by men.  If you find this difficult, imagine your internal response if they had been written from the women’s perspectives.  Which position is more likely to evoke, “Hmm, interesting,” as opposed to, “What are these women whining about?”

When we consider advocacy, it’s fair think of it as those with more power and influence using these advantages to champion those who have less.  Sure, the less powerful and influential can and do advocate for themselves, but without allies among the advantaged, the message and movement stall and stutter.  Consider slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.  If it were only ever black people advocating for themselves, what would the American racial landscape would look like today?  Think about women’s rights.  There is a reason the United Nations launched the HeforShe campaign.  Self-advocacy is required, but sorely inadequate, to lift people out of oppression.  And let’s be clear: oppression takes many forms, which we often fail recognize or acknowledge.

I have a fantasy about patients advocating for physicians.

I imagine Sally and John*, two friends communing at their favorite coffee shop, one of their regular meetings of mind and soul.  The conversation veers toward healthcare, and Sally starts ranting about how physicians don’t care about patients anymore.  They’re only in it for the money, having sold out to pharma and industry, and they think of themselves as second only to God him(her)self, exercising control over patients’ lives with little regard or actual caring.  In this coffee shop scenario, I as physician have no power or influence.  If I sat there with them, trying to explain how ‘the system’ drives wedges between us doctors and our patients, about how on average doctors spend twice as much time on administrative activities as patient care activities, how 50% of us report burnout, and how our suicide rate is up to 4 times that of the general public, I estimate that I’d likely be seen as whining and making excuses.  In this scenario, facing a (rightfully) prejudiced audience, my voice counts for very little.

Although physicians still enjoy a fair amount of respect and deference in society, our struggles, personal and professional, are still poorly understood by the general public.  I think people are even less cognizant of the insidious and profound detriment that physician burnout and depression have on patient care and the economy at large.  But when doctors describe our adversities to patients, I think we still come across as whining.  Knowing that I write this as a physician, what is your reaction?  Is it closer to, “You live at the top of the food chain, what are you complaining about?” Or rather, “Wow, what’s going on that so many doctors feel so badly, and how could we all help one another?”

Lucky for doctors everywhere, John is my patient and we have a longstanding, collaborative relationship.  He empathizes with Sally’s perspective, as he knows what she has been through medically.  He has also inquired about my work, and understands the systemic frustrations that physicians face in all fields.  Because they are such good friends, John feels comfortable challenging Sally’s skewed assertions.  He describes what he has learned from me, and explains earnestly that all doctors are not, in fact, swine.  Because he is her trusted confidant, she believes him.  Her attitude opens ever so slightly, and she is more likely to acknowledge how physicians and patients alike suffer from our overall healthcare structure.  John is, in this case, the strongest advocate for me and my ilk.

Whenever one of us stands up as a member of a group, and speaks up to our peers on behalf of another group—white people for black people, men for women, Christians, Jews, and Muslims for Muslims, Christians, and Jews, liberals for conservatives, physicians for patients, and vice versa in each case—we are all elevated.  Our mutual compassion and humanity are called forth to heal our divisions.  This is how personal advocacy, how everyday power and influence, works.

As a patient, you have more power than you may realize.  I bet most people don’t necessarily feel adversarial toward doctors.  But they probably don’t necessarily feel allied, either.  What can you, as a patient, do to bridge this gap?  How else could we all, physicians and patients alike, create that essentially healing inter-tribal connection?

*Hypothetical friends

Love Letter to My Superstar Friends

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Dear Paul & Joanne*,

I cannot tell you how grateful I am to you both for taking the time to meet me last week.  You came out in the pouring rain, not for a lighthearted night of drinks and karaoke, but to talk charged politics with your tortured, melancholic, liberal friend.  I hope it did not feel too burdensome, and that you would do it again.

It was quite the emotional evening for me, unsettling, sometimes uncomfortable, and also dominated by love.  Joanne, we have known each other about 15 years, and I know you are not a fan of politics in general.  Paul, I know you mostly through your witty holiday cards, and your occasional Facebook posts that often touch on politics.  You lean right, it seems, about as much as I lean left.  You gently called me out when I shared a Trump supporter-shaming video, reminding me to hold myself to a higher standard of discourse on all platforms.  That is why I sought you out.  When you engage, you exemplify the attitude toward political discourse that I aspire to.

I described to Joanne over the phone how distraught I had been since November, something akin to “watching the fabric of my generation’s social progress torn to shreds by a maniacally fomenting, double-machete-wielding narcissist.”  You seemed genuinely surprised and curious—why did this election have such a profoundly tormenting effect on me?  What made millions of people pour into the streets around the world in protest?  I was incredulous at your incredulity, and yet I felt a mutual, loving acceptance between friends who only want each other to be happy and feel secure.

At dinner, I could tell that you both cared acutely about my distress, and wanted to help alleviate it.  You reassured me that the worst case scenarios are highly unlikely to actually happen.  You reminded me that hyperventilation and arm flapping are not productive energy expenditures.  You gently encouraged me about the long, jagged, often meandering, and also inevitable path of social progress, and the importance of taking the long view.

I admit that I felt a little defensive at times, as if anything I said about the origins of my distress would be met with, “You’re overreacting,” and “You’re worried about nothing, please…”  We later agreed that it is never helpful to invalidate someone’s emotional response to a stressor, regardless of whether or not we can relate.  Paul, you are so well-read and convicted about your opinions.  I did not see a point in arguing, as you did not seem interested in debate, and I left feeling disappointed that I had not presented a stronger defense of my liberal ideals.  The whole exchange felt lopsided in favor of your position.  But I did learn from your point of view, which was one of my primary objectives.

Most importantly, our conversation revived my mindfulness practice.  You’re right—energy spent catastrophizing about a hell-on-earth future is energy wasted.  As Michael J. Fox says (I paraphrase), “Don’t spend your time worrying, because if what you’re worried about actually happens, now you’ve lived it twice.”  My energy is better spent in the present, attending to what is, rather than what I fear might be.  And I feel justified in my shock and dismay at what is.  In my opinion, Donald Trump has defiled the presidency and brought our politics to a new moral low that I could never have predicted.  I don’t need to ‘go apeshit’ over the future, as there is plenty of wreckage to confront right now, not the least of which is our collective refusal to engage one another in civil discourse.  I can center, ground, and focus, breathe deeply and engage, one step, one person, or one loving couple, at a time.

Last week Dan Rather wrote my heart on his Facebook page:

The threats, the lies, the willful disregard for the rule of law should be limited to the world of Hollywood caricature. To see this played out each night on the news, to read about ramblings and inconsistencies in justifications for actions that should never have been taken, is to see a moment of great peril for our nation.

I remain, however, an optimist. I see the swellings of civic engagement and action. I hear the voices of those who demand that this subversion of our national ideals shall not stand. I have covered social movements of the past, and never have seen one where so much power and numbers lie on the side of the opposition. This is a clash for the values of our nation. Our destiny is in our hands.

Our nation’s patchy, irregular social fabric may be strained to its limits today, and even torn in some places.  But the threat of real disintegration has brought forth multitudes of weavers and quilters to repair and protect its integrity.  I can acknowledge this ‘collateral beauty’ and contribute my part, through conversations like ours, to help mend the tapestry, and bend that moral arc of the universe more toward justice.

Thank you, my dear friends, for helping me train for this marathon.  You hold me up and make me stronger.  I hope I do the same for you.

Sincerely and with love,

Cathy

 

*Not their real names

To Train Or Not To Train

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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.