Be a Connecting Node

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How would you describe American political culture today?

What about the culture at your workplace?

In your family?

Are dissenting voices welcomed?  How do those in authority wield their power?  Do the led have a say in decisions and policies that affect them?  Are their needs and interests taken into account by those who lead?

What role do you play in each of these systems?  How do you contribute to the function, dysfunction, morale, and relationships in these interconnected, overlapping, inextricable and sometimes tenuous systems?

How much of these cultures do you own, do you take personal responsibility for?

I have written before about the interaction between a system and its individuals.  In each of the systems I name above—our nation, your workplace, your family—you are a single individual, a node [a point at which lines or pathways intersect or branch; a central or connecting point].  You are connected, directly and indirectly, to every other node in all of your systems.  Thus, you connect each of your overlapping systems to every other one.  So do I.  This is how we are all connected, every single one of us, and our planet.

Thus, what you do affects me, even if I have never met you, even if we live on different continents, in separate generations, speaking mutually unintelligible languages, and vice versa, for all of us.

Octavia Butler said it best:

All that you touch
You Change.
All that you Change
Changes you.
The only lasting truth
Is Change.
God
Is Change.

So how do you change what you touch?

Do you make it better than it was?  Does the change you make make you better in return?

If the only lasting truth is change, then what do we want tomorrow to look like?  What about next year?  What kind of world do we want our grandchildren and their grandchildren to inherit?

Are you a node that connects, using your power and love to thicken the ties between your adjacent nodes and systems, making them stronger and more resilient?  Who is healthier, stronger, and happier for you having touched them?  How have they then extended that health, strength and joy to others?  How have you resisted destructive forces and stood in the way of systems disintegration?  Whom have you protected?  What did it cost you, and what did you gain?  What have you earned?  How will you persist?  What and who hold you up?  On which nodes do you lean, from which do you draw strength, and how then do you pass that strength on?  How do you influence and co-create the culture around you this way?

Or are you a destructive, severing node?  How do you go around blowing up connections, weakening relationship infrastructures?  Maybe you don’t see it this way. Perhaps you see your work as culling, pruning, removing extraneous nodal debris, clearing the path for a more righteous supersystem to rise.  What does this cost you?  Is the benefit worth the price?  Who are your coconspirators in this effort?  How do they change you for your connections to them?  How do you expect your connections to other destructive nodes to evolve?  What is your impact on your systems cultures, being this way?

I suspect we all possess both poles of nodal potential.  Probably most of us go about our days in relative mindlessness, speaking and acting as our surroundings and culture dictate, by convention and custom.  We suppress the inner dissonance that arises when our personal instincts run counter to prevailing winds of rhetoric.  We fear losing connections if our personal nodal identity reflects a different light or sounds a different note from the collective thrum.  The status quo feels easier to uphold.

I posit to you today that our systems are disintegrating fast, eroded by myriad destructive nodes, spreading like slime mold on a global petri dish.  I argue that our collective political culture suffers much today from these destructive nodes, and connector nodes struggle to nurture ties and maintain relationships.  In such times, we may feel tempted to give in, to allow our inner rage monster to tantrum, to succumb to swelling, destructive, disconnecting culture.  Indeed, it is hard to resist.

And yet, we continue.  We march on.

Culture is created and maintained in each day to day interaction between all members of a system. Any individual may choose, at any time, to maintain the status quo or make a shift. It is the accumulation of multiple small shifts, simultaneously and in series, that moves a system to a new, improved state.  Each day we awaken, we have a choice—an infinite series of choices—to make a shift toward connecting and strengthening our intertwined systems.

Do not wait for someone else to go first.  Make the choice yourself, today, right now.  Be a connecting node.  Speak and act, post online, and show up in person, irrefutably, as a connector.  Make your touch productive and generative, inclusive, empowering, and communal.  See how this changes how others show up to you, and how that changes you for the better still.  Then watch the slime mold recede before your eyes as connector node energy amplifies and restores balance.

Slime molds recur.  Connecting nodes hold the line.  We need you.

This Year, Call Forth Our Best Selves

 

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I find myself even more self-conscious today than I did five years ago.  I hear fellow Asian-Americans express similar sentiments, especially as the coronavirus crisis escalates.  My friends and I haven’t experienced outright racism, but we’re on the lookout for it, as we see so many others deal with it every day.  Call it hypersensitivity if you wish.  But if you are white, please consider how your race provides you the unearned privilege of never (or at least seldom) having to question whether someone else’s negativity toward you is due to your skin color.

This election year, I’m deciding how I will be and how I will do.  I play with boundaries around media exposure, social media engagement, and conversations on politics.  I want to do it better than I did last time.  Soon after I started my Facebook page c.2008, I intended it to be a monument to my most positive tendencies.  That intention gave way to wrath and fury for much of 2016, ending regrettably in a couple of severed relationships.  At some point I reviewed my posts and found an alarming ratio of negative posts, mostly written during fits of impulsive rage.  That was a wake-up call.

By January 2017 I had recovered at least somewhat.  February 2017 brought a series of “Rules of Engagement” queries on this blog, which I am gratified to reread tonight.  These three years I have trained hard to approach all political conversations with more curiosity, generosity, and commitment to connection.  Some people and topics are still too sensitive to broach, but progress continues.  My training continues alongside my Better Angels tribe members.

I successfully moderated my media consumption these two weeks around impeachment.  I read Lamar Alexander’s statement 3 days ago and considered its purported rationale.  Part of it made sense to me, and still I’m unsatisfied with the whole situation, which I shared on Facebook.  My friends and I exchanged opinions and ideas civilly and respectfully, which I appreciate.

In the end, I believe engagement will be the solution.  In 2016 only 50% of eligible voters cast a ballot.  Of those, a little over half chose Hillary Clinton.  But it wasn’t enough for ‘my side.’  This year we must get the apathetic and disengaged back to the polls. We have nine months to rectify voter access, to connect with those on the fence and invite them down on the side of inclusion, equity, integrity, and respect for humanity.  If our opponents fling excrement, we cannot follow suit.  We must not become the shit-flinging adversaries we say we abhor—no matter which side we’re on.  We must speak from our highest core values, rather than to their lowest words and behaviors.  We must connect deeply with every person’s need to feel seen, heard, understood, accepted, and loved.  I have THE. HARDEST. time considering 45’s innate humanity.  But if I start there, I can handle any conversation with anyone else, and I show any ‘opponent’ why I am a worthy rival and not just an idiot enemy.  And I bring out the worthy rival ahead of the idiot enemy in them.

Well, at least this is the goal, the guiding light I intend to follow this year.  Surely I will fall under shadows sometimes.  But the more I manage to stay in the light, the less I will suffer and the less suffering I will inflict on others.  I intend to call forth my best self, for my sake the sake of all those around me.

 

What I’m Learning About Equity

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My friends, I am humbled this weekend.

A year ago I agreed to present on culture change to the inaugural WEL cohort, a group of 18 amazing women physician leaders.  I had no idea at the time what an honor and privilege this would be.  This would be the last in person meeting of their 18 month training on Wellness, Equity, and Leadership.  Having just completed my own 10 month leadership training, I empathized acutely with the bittersweet bonding and pending farewell among these sisters.

For two days I received infinitely more than I offered, and I saw again how membership in a mutually respectful, supportive, and empowering tribe can transform any individual from star to superstar.  Truly, these women were superstars before this tribe was formed; but whereas before we probably only needed dark sunglasses in their presence, now we need welder’s masks.

Gender, race, socioeconomic status, mental health status—these factors among others are all subject to unconscious bias and thus discrimination, in all arenas of society.  These WEL women will have a hand in changing that for the better, of this I am certain.  I’m so proud to know them all.

The night before my presentation, I messaged my friend who has helped me think more deeply about these issues in the past year.  I wrote, “It reminds me of your idea of approaching inclusion first, which I now see as wide psychological safety.  As you said, there can be a room full of white men and all may not feel included. And in my mind, that precludes true, open and honest collaboration and productivity.  It prevents any forward movement toward diversity or equity. When we don’t feel safe we revert to scarcity and survival thinking.  We look out only for ourselves.  Nothing good happens here.”

What about the one Old White Guy (OWG) among women, how does he feel?  Dr. Clif Knight, Senior Vice President of Education for the American Academy of Family Physicans and WEL steering committee member, owned this distinction this week.  He reported his recent self-identification as ‘a HeForShe.’  My heart leapt for joy.  Later I took him by the lapels and shook him (gently), practically yelling that I was so excited, and wished for him to recruit all of his OWG friends to the cause.

I thought again about my friend above, also an OWG.  I know him to be kind, generous, respectful of women and a genuine ally.  What about his idea of working on inclusion first?  After a long, deep conversation with one of my new WEL friends, with whom I’m also thinking about equity issues for Asian-American physicians, a new insight dawned on me, and I wrote to her: “Practicing inclusion INCLUDES the OWG ‘oppressor’! 😱  If we talk only about him needing to include others, while we make him feel excluded himself, how can we ever expect to enroll him in our cause or even behave in the way we ask? We do how we feel. And when we feel threatened and marginalized, especially from a place of loss, we act accordingly…”

Another new WEL friend, Dr. Dawn Sears, has already taken this idea to heart and made an impact in her community, elevating women’s and men’s awareness of gender disparity in medicine, and helping them fight it together.  Check out her powerful presentation to colleagues here, full of evidence as well as unsettling personal stories.  In it she directly and kindly addresses the men in the audience, informing and inviting them to join the fight, for all our sakes.  She names the contrarian men who have held her up on her professional journey, defying gender bias and paving their own HeForShe way for others.  She includes men in order to enroll them in the movement.  I encourage all to view the talk—find out how you, as colleague, patient, and all around good citizen, man or woman, can help improve the system for us all.

Once again I thought about my friend.  I wrote to him again:  “I wonder if I inadvertently made you feel excluded, or at least ‘other’d’ when I asked you to read Feminist Fight Club*.  DUH, the intended audience for that book is women.”  He was gracious and encouraging in his response, and I look forward to continuing our conversation for a long while.

Tonight I feel wildly optimistic.  So many strong, visible, articulate, creative, powerful and loving people all over the place, all working to make the world better for all of us, WOW.  We will make a difference, my friends.  We are not only allies; we are accomplices.  If we go together, we can do anything.

Onward, friends.  We’ got lots to do.

 

*He made an earnest, good faith effort, and did not finish the book.

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.