All Good Things Must End

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Setting moon, Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch, Loveland, Colorado.  Photo courtesy of Dr. Karen Cornell

Friends, Leading Organizations to Health has graduated Cohort 11, the Class of 2020.

Ten months ago I started at my Hogwarts, the leadership training program that has definitely made me a better leader.  But more importantly, it made me nine amazing new friends and a much better person.  Today, on the last day of the last retreat, it all came together in the most beautiful way, and I am beyond grateful.

These ten months were the best elective educational experience of my life—they really gave college and med school a run for their money.  We immersed in a curriculum dense with abstract concepts of interpersonal communication and organizational change management.  We then translated the theories into tangible skills in an experiential learning lab, applied to specific challenges brought by my 7 cohort mates and me.  Over four in-person retreats and monthly Zoom calls, we shared, supported, and coached one another in the tenets of relationship-centered leadership.

We bonded in a similar way to residents on call:  Gathered for training, bringing different backgrounds and perspectives, participating in a common curriculum but each with a unique learning path, eventually to disperse and practice in different settings across the country.  We eight now share a connection of stories and struggle that nobody else can know.  We are a tribe.

Thus, I grieved the goodbyes long before we arrived in Loveland this last time.  But I also trusted our master facilitators to help me manage this, by both their loving and authentic presence and the very structure of the program, which is founded on contemplation and self-awareness.  I also felt an abiding faith in the friendships we all grew this past year.  As with my best friends from college and medical school, I knew we would maintain contact and connection, just in a different way.  We can’t stay in the nest forever—now is the time to fly.

In thoughtfully constructed journaling exercises and discussion groups, we reflected, consolidated, and synthesized ten months of learning.  We also examined our personal and professional evolution over this time, growth and movement in fluidity and complexity.  We explored aspirations and imagined the future state of this work in our natural habitats.  Finally, we sat in a closing circle.   Having each shared our own reflections, the group offered each friend observations, affirmations, and well wishes in what I can only describe as the most loving communion.  Each person’s strengths were articulated and amplified.  We acknowledged one another’s challenges.  We celebrated each other’s engagement, perseverance, contributions and triumphs.  Finally, sustained mutual support was extended around the circle, wholeheartedly and without qualification.

In my opinion, we formed the kind of community that we all want to lead.  Tony and Diane led us all by example, deliberately, artfully, and mindfully.  They live the principles they teach; they lovingly and patiently showed us the way.  In the end we discovered our own capacity to each write our own next chapter(s).  By making us feel seen, heard, understood, accepted and loved these ten months, our teachers inspired us to do the same for others.  And that is the strongest foundation for building our houses of positive change agency.

Now we go forth.  We’ got this.

Better Angels:  Clarifying the Commitment

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Dear Friends,

Happy New Year!

What have you committed to?  What will define a good or great year when you look back on December 31?

Better Angels Illinois chapter leaders held a potluck brunch today.  Over a mouthwatering international selection of food, we reviewed activities and growth in 2019, and set our sights on 2020 with enthusiasm and camaraderie.  We found encouragement, inspiration, and connection in one another on a remarkably mild January day in Evanston.

We spent a long time today discussing negative media coverage about BA (read in the Washington Post here and the New York Times here).  Basically they say the work is futile at best, and harmful to a progressive agenda at worst.  We queried ourselves for how these articles make us feel, where we think they’re coming from, and how we might approach and respond, both individually and collectively.  I felt so gratified when we agreed that probably we should call forth the communication skills we teach in our workshops:  stay curious and respectful, acknowledge our detractors’ valid points, and stand in our core values, our WHY for doing this work.  I shared my two most recent posts on why I committed to Better Angels and my Fierce Optimism about the value we add to the greater political conversation.

I’m also gratified to read this long article in The Atlantic by Andrew Ferguson.  He attended BA workshops and interviewed the organization’s leaders, took the time to really understand BA’s Why and How, and then summarized it eloquently.  He addressed Julie Kohler’s objections in the WaPo article with respect, humor, and almost defiant hope.  If you’re up for reading another couple thousand words after this, check it out; I highly recommend it.

Finally, I share with you below a letter to members from John Wood Jr., Director of Public Outreach for Better Angels.  I’m satisfied, for now, to let his words speak for me (especially the parts I bolded).

Onward, friends.  We will always be in this together, and I pledge to continue figuring out a better way forward.

***

January 5th, 2020

A Call to Courage

Dear Catherine,

Better Angels began with a kernel of faith.

After the election in 2016 was over, you wouldn’t have found many people who would have told you that it would be easy to bring together 20 or so Clinton and Trump supporters to spend a weekend together discovering their “better angels” when the wounds of the election were so raw. This happened though, and our belief that it could was the beginning of what became an enterprise of goodwill that spread across America. Here at the start of 2020, Better Angels finds itself at the center of a small, but nationwide, movement of Americans from across the divide to reestablish charitable understanding as the foundation of our national conversation.

But our work is deeper than that. And it needs to go deeper.

(I sought to cast a vision of what it looks like to go deeper than ‘merely’ empathy in reforming the fraught social culture of our country in an address to the Visionaries Summit, a gathering of New Age social entrepreneurs, last autumn in California. See it here: Social Transformation Through Self-Transformation: John Wood, Jr. at Visionaries🙂

Building understanding between Americans is not something that we do merely because it feels good.

It does feel good. That is true. There are so many amazing moments in the work that we do that we could never count them.

It does not feel good, however, to have people attack you (from your own ‘side’ no less) for “fraternizing with the enemy.” It does not feel good to put yourself in the line of fire of someone whom you are trying to show kindness to, only to receive contempt from them in return.

We do not do this work simply because it feels good. The work we do is hard. Sometimes, it even hurts.

We do it because the future of the United States of America depends on it.

America’s future rests not first and foremost necessarily on who the president of the United States is or who controls the houses of congress. The future of our nation depends on our own willingness, and our own ability, to maintain the bonds of civic friendship that allow us to behave honorably towards each other as a people.

We do not oppose the two party system at Better Angels. Indeed, we are Republicans and Democrats, alongside Independents and members of third parties, striving together in a working alliance for a deeper good in this country. We seek in essence what you might call Dr. King’s “Beloved Community,” or the “more perfect union” set forth as the aspiration of the Constitution of the United States.

Yet while not challenging the legitimacy of our political parties, we recognize that much in the way of the incentives that are guiding our major political and politically affiliated institutions, including and beyond the parties, are predicated on a willingness to divide the American people for short-sighted political gain.

The means by which some forces in politics, the media, and elsewhere do so often times include intellectual dishonesty – and a striking lack of humility and empathy.

Perhaps one side is more guilty of this than the other. Most of our members, leaders and volunteers feel this way, even if we disagree on which side that actually is. The true balance of error in our politics between the two parties matters. It is a subject that is fit for debate.

Yet, as Republicans and Democrats (and all others) here is what we say matters more:

What matters more is that we set an example for how Americans ought to treat one another – both for the ‘other side’ but more importantly for our own.

What matters more is that we discover and rediscover the power of those ideals that transcend and salvage our politics – the ideals that make us one American people – beyond race, religion or party.

What matters more is that we create the structures, the environment and the resources that allow Americans to engage, to organize and to rebuild community around these ideals – and in opposition to the ways of thinking that would prevent this.

The bases for this work are patriotism and empathy.  But it is also courage.

We believe in the decency of the American people. We believe in the decency of you. We also believe in the bravery of the American people.

We believe you have the courage to meet dishonesty with integrity. We believe you have the courage to meet demagoguery with dignity. We believe you have the bravery to return love for hatred and the tenacity to return understanding for fear.

That is the stand we take in 2020. We are sending out a call to courage. We are grateful that you have the courage to stand with us.

Much, much more to come. Just as America faces a great test this year, our organization and our movement must rise to the challenge of the preserving the heart of our civic conscience. Together, we are equal to the task.

-John Wood, Jr.

National leader & Director of Public Outreach

Better Angels

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November 30:  Blogging Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

I think I can honestly say this after 4.5 years.

Candidate topics for this last post of the 30 day challenge included People, Relationships, Connection, Movies, and Ma Jiang.  Of course all of these make me better, but tonight Blogging wins.

Writing for a public forum makes me more cognizant of my potential audience, more discerning.  I have to choose my topics carefully, balance honesty and vulnerability with privacy.  It gives me a venue to practice various skills—writing, time management, storytelling, editing, and online interaction.  Since I have committed to visiting the blogs of all bloggers who like my posts, I have also discovered the writing and lives of others whom I’d likely never otherwise come across.  My horizon is widened.

Blogging allows me to put thoughts into the world and find others with similar thoughts.  It’s a diary of experience, a web-log that serves, if nothing else, as a timeline of my personal and professional evolution, which I can then query over time in order to understand myself better.  But I don’t write it only for myself—otherwise why make it public?  I write to connect, because that makes me better, always better.

Maybe I can ask more of the blog in 2020.  Maybe I could make it more focused?  More organized?  More goal-oriented?  Or maybe not.  Nothing has to be decided tonight.  I’ll know when something needs to change.

Meanwhile, my sincere and heartfelt thanks to all who take time out of your lives to read Healing Through Connection.  I hope you get something out of it that makes you better, too.

November 29:  Reflection Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

How was 2019 for you, friends?

Looking back, what stands out?  What gives you pride and joy?  Guilt and regret?  What’s the best thing you learned?  What do you look forward to the most in 2020?

In the first post of this month, I described my last role play experience, one marked by intensity around domestic violence and dense communication skills practice.  Dr. Orit Kalnieri-Miller led the workshop, and I will forever be grateful for her groundbreaking work incorporating reflective practice in medical education.

Wikipedia says reflective practice is

 the ability to reflect on one’s actions so as to engage in a process of continuous learning.[1] According to one definition it involves “paying critical attention to the practical values and theories which inform everyday actions, by examining practice reflectively and reflexively. This leads to developmental insight”.[2]A key rationale for reflective practice is that experience alone does not necessarily lead to learning; deliberate reflection on experience is essential.[3][4]

Regular reflective practice, I think, is mindfulness in action.

This whole month I have been reflecting.  Looking back, seeking patterns.  What really does make me better?  Better for whom?  For What?  How does it all help me going forward?  I have probed my habits, my relationships, roles, activities, ideals and attitudes.  Writing the reflections every night as a blogging challenge probably does not give each idea much time to sink in.  But now they are recorded.  They are a collection that I can review over time; I can revise, rewrite, and continue the reflection-learning-practice cycle of self-improvement.  Reading past posts reminds me of where I was then, which allows comparison and contrast to today.

I am, still and always, me.  I’m also always learning and changing.  Reflection helps me to know myself better and more deeply, to claim and exercise my authentic agency in service of the causes that matter to me.  Reflection keeps me focused on my Why.  In the coming year, it will help me identify, refine, and enact my next Just Cause.  Very exciting!

But maybe the best part is that reflective practice is not a solitary activity.  When I have any opportunity to get feedback from those whose perspectives I respect, the learning is that much deeper and more meaningful, even (especially) if it challenges and agitates me.  People mirrors do not always show the reflection I want, or the self-delusions I believe–they call me out.  But sometimes they show that I’m living exactly and fully in my integrity and values.  Both are equally valuable.

So I will continue looking for reflections everywhere.  They keep me honest, and that makes me better.

November 22:  Listening to People’s Stories Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

What a long, strange week.  I almost forgot to write a post, just wanted to relax and do nothing.

Looking back, overall it was good. And it was people who held me up, as always.  I had some pretty moving and meaningful conversations with patients, and I really helped some people, I think.  But it was a new acquaintance who really made my day today.

I finally had time to bring my car to the body shop this afternoon.  After an unfortunate encounter with a fire hydrant while backing out of a very poorly planned driveway, my front bumper has been partially detached for about 7 weeks.  Every single person at this shop was remarkably nice—from the lady on the phone, to the young man who so politely offered to move my car when I parked it in totally the wrong place.  The waiting area was clean, neat, and well lit, with comfy, non-holey chairs.  After a short wait, a petite and pleasant woman, maybe 40, introduced herself.  She would provide the estimate on my repairs.  We headed outside.  She pointed to the ledge at the doorway on which I had tripped walking in, so I would not do it again.

After I brought her to the car she said I could go back inside and wait, but I asked to hang out with her, because I like to see what other people do.  I know less than nothing about cars, and I loved that here was a youngish, friendly woman who clearly knew her way around them.  I admired her right away.  She was thorough and conscientious, looking inside and out.  She was also extremely knowledgeable and patient, showing me everything, talking me through the parts and functions, and answering my ignorant questions, down to how the VIN includes the paint mix of the make, model and year.  She stayed with me through the whole process, including walking me out to show me the key drop box, because they can’t fix my car for another two weeks.

Before we said goodbye I could not help myself.  I told her how happy it makes me to see a woman doing a job that I have only seen men do.  She seemed genuinely proud and thankful for the compliment, and I’m glad I said something.  I didn’t mean to make her stand outside in the cold any longer, but she started reflecting and telling me her story.  Turns out this was her first day on her own at this job—I thought she had done it for years already.  Nope.  She had done inventory for a railroad company, and programmed machines that cut industrial dies.  She had worked in shops and factories of various kinds, it sounded like, always surrounded by and holding her own among men.

I asked her if it feels different (and hopefully better?) being a woman in these male-dominated fields now, after all these years.  She thought for a moment (looking completely comfortable, while I had started shivering already).  It almost seemed like she had never considered the question before?  She concluded that her peers and coworkers have never been the problem.  It’s the customers.

She kept talking, as if the subsequent story had been waiting days for a sympathetic ear.  In her last days of training, a man brought in a car with severe rear body damage, clearly from a collision.  He gave her a history, she made her appraisal, and he was suspicious and dismissive toward her the whole time.  To assuage him, she brought her trainer to review the case, whose assessment and recommendations were the same as hers.  This time the customer told a different story—admitted to lying to her, basically—and accepted the trainer’s evaluation.  No apology, no remorse, no respect.  She was still affected by it today, and upset with herself that she had let him get under her skin.  Whatever, she said in the end, she’s here to do a job, and there will always be people who underestimate her because of her sex.  Thankfully her trainer was an ally, which made me proud of the good men in our midst.

This woman’s life experience, though clearly different from mine, felt relatable and real to me.  In those few minutes, in the waning daylight of a brisk fall evening in Chicago, surrounded by broken cars, I felt solidarity with and pride for her.  It made me better for reminding me once again of our shared humanity:  Hers, mine, my patients’, those crazy drivers on Wednesday, even her lying customer.

We’re all here doing our best with what we’ got.  I firmly believe this, but sometimes I forget.  Hearing folks’ stories always brings me back.  So I’m thankful for them.

 

November 17:  Elasticity Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

What was school like for you growing up?  Were you bored?  Confused?  Frustrated?  I had a pretty easy time, but many of my classmates did not, even the ‘smart’ ones.

In high school I was on the speech team.  One of my events was persuasive speaking.  I chose one year to advocate for teachers to broaden their teaching styles to match a wider variety of learning styles.  I used the Gregorc Mindstyle Delineator as an example of how styles can vary (mine is Abstract Random, go figure).  It was an interesting thesis and I sincerely believed what I wrote and presented in those 8 minutes each weekend.

Thirty years later, I wonder how much I walk this talk of meeting people where they need me.  Simply asking the question, raising my awareness, makes me better.

Parenting.  It doesn’t matter how many parenting books you read or how well you think your parents raised you.  General principles apply, of course.  But every kid is unique, and we parents do better when we realize that the methods we use for anything on kid #1 won’t necessarily work with kid #2, #3, an onward.  Flexibility is key to a happy and functional household, for getting out the door every morning without yelling.

Marriage:  According to the Dr. John Gottman, about two-thirds of marital problems are perpetual, meaning they will never actually resolve.  So how do couples stay together successfully?  Among other things, they learn to accept one another and work around the hard stuff.  At least partially, we have to soften our rigidities, learn to bend and sway, embrace the supple, intimate dance of commitment.

Teaching:  Not all students learn best by watching.  Not all learn best by doing.  Or by hearing, mimicking, or competing.  Luckily, medical education gives trainees multiple platforms on which to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to care for patients.  For all its flaws, our profession actually does well here.  I’m happy that I realized this in my own experience.  When I precept students in clinic, they shadow, scribe, see patients alone or lead a joint encounter, so they can experience the work from different perspectives.  I think this mutual versatility and adaptability makes us all better.

Patient Care:  Over the years I have accumulated myriad articles and books to share with patients.  But not everybody’s a reader like me.  Not everybody wants to meditate or journal.  Some people do better with a personal trainer, others in spin class.  It’s my job to assess how each patient is most likely to succeed in health habit optimization, and present the most appropriate resources for consideration.  Primary care definitely does not work with a one size fits all approach.  So now I include audiobooks, podcasts, phone apps, and YouTube videos in my repertoire of medical information sharing.  I am blunt when it’s needed, and also gentle and diplomatic.  I can speak from the head and the heart, often both at the same time.

Speaking Engagements:  Here is where my elasticity has grown the most in recent years.  For the first decade of my career, I still used the expository presentation style I learned in high school.  Thankfully in 2014, I watched Nancy Duarte’s TED talk on transformative oral presentations, and then read her book, Resonate, in 2015.  Make the audience the hero, she says.  Tell a story, contrast what is with what could be, paint the vision of the blissful future clearly.  Engage people’s emotions and aspirations.

This is not easily done with Power Point decks full of words.  But words are my medium!  I had to add color, diagrams, cartoons, photographs.  I started making my presentations more interactive, between myself and the audience, and between audience members themselves.  Now I have people stand up and move their bodies.  I may bring raisins to my next talk and do a mindful eating exercise.  I need to learn how to embed music and videos into my slides.

What is the objective in all of these relationships?  It’s connection.  How do we best connect?  We reach out.  We extend ourselves to others—make ourselves relaxed, flexible, spring-like.  That is how we gather people closer.  It’s not formless or weak.  A strong elastic maintains its integrity even under high tension.  But it must be stretched often, or it becomes stiff, brittle, and ultimately ineffectual.

 

November 15: Smiling People Make Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

Winter has set in here in Chicago. Oh well, this too shall pass. The kids were off from school today, so my morning exit was quiet and solitary. I drove along our alley, coming up behind on a slight female figure pushing a stroller. As I passed her, she looked up with a big smile and waved with an open, ungloved hand. She really seemed to look for eye contact with me, the unknown driver passing her. I had wished for the same, but had no expectations. In my pleasant surprise, I smiled back and nodded, one hand on the wheel, the other holding my coffee, which I raised in greeting. I had learned long ago that life in the big city is usually not this friendly.  She pretty much made my morning.

I’ve been thinking about it all day. How many times a day do we contact strangers? How often does a person on the street look at you, make eye contact, and smile? Or say hello? How often do you do this? Does it not just brighten your day, even a little? How does it feel when you pass a dozen people and nobody acknowledges your existence? The most fascinating is when someone looks at me, makes eye contact, expresses nothing whatsoever, then looks away and keeps walking.

I used to be much more judgmental of these behaviors and people. I may have even taken it personally in early adulthood. But now I’ve lightened up a little. I don’t think it’s about me. But it makes me wonder about people—what is it that closes us off from strangers? Based on people’s expressions, I tell stories that they are worried, anxious, angry, distracted, rushing, arrogant, oblivious, or just mean. I make it about them. But this is neither productive nor healthy. It just makes me resentful and less likely to smile at the next person I meet.

Every one of us is one of these things I listed at some point—I think I experience each of those states at least once every day. I apologize in advance if you meet me in one of these moments. So now I try to tell myself that everybody has a unique story of getting through life and the world. This attitude shift has done two things for me. 1) It makes me appreciate smiling people that much more. I notice the twinkle in someone’s eye, the dimples, the cheekbones, the sterling white and/or crooked teeth. I appreciate these joyful strangers and let their joy sink into me. 2) It makes me more, rather than, less, likely to look for eye contact with others. If you’re not having a good day, maybe I can make it better by seeing you and smiling. I do this especially when I see moms with little kids or babies. I remember those days (so hard!) and how reassuring it was when strangers smiled and looked at us lovingly.

That woman really did make my day.

Crossing the street on my way to the parking garage after work today, a car turned left in front of me. The driver had not seen me crossing until the last second. When we made eye contact I could tell he was apologetic. He mouthed, “Sorry,” and raised his left hand in a humble wave. I smiled that I understood, no harm done. Further down the sidewalk a couple walked quickly in the cold, coming toward me. The very tall man marched in front, apparently focused on his destination behind me. His female companion came a couple steps behind. I smiled, and she smiled back—big! She had on a puffy black faux fur coat, a stylishly coordinated black fuzzy hat, nicely coifed hair jutting out from underneath, and neat, metal-framed eyeglasses that complemented her round, friendly face. I think she even said hello. My mood was definitely better for having passed them.

I’ve been in a great mood all day, maybe because of these strangers.

I think we profoundly underestimate the impact we all have on one another, positive and negative, in our smallest interactions. A genuine smile from a stranger on the street can really make your day better. When you smile at me, it makes me smile back at you, and vice versa, obviously—but the best thing about it is that we are both better off for it. That’s how joy works, I think—it doesn’t matter who starts it. It just grows wherever it is, and expands exponentially with each person who shares it.

So here’s to smiling people. You make me better. May I always smile back at you and keep the pageant of joy alive and well.