Consider the female gonad. When you rip open a new wound on yourself every month for decades on end, ready and waiting each time to overtake an entire body, orchestrating the coordinated and prolonged creation and delivery of an entirely new and unique sentient being, which the body then must sustain for months longer with only its own nutritional synthetic power, how is it that you are still not crowned the queen of all organs of strength, capacity, and resilience?
“Balls out”, we say, when we hold up boldness and assertiveness–but only when referring to men. Do we only see it when men are heroic and daring? What about when women take dauntless risks, so often on behalf of others? How do we express our admiration for this? BOOBS OUT, I say, when I want to validate a woman’s right to assert her power, agency, and independence, out loud and in front. But it doesn’t do the conviction justice. “OVARIOS,” my friend suggested, when it came up in conversation years ago. Hell yes. I’m still waiting for this to catch on.
Of course strength, courage, and resilience are not always manifest by taking impulsive public action in the face of immediate threats to survival, ego, or status. For how many generations have women held collective humanity up, well after birthing it, serving as tireless caregivers, counselors, mediators, peacemakers, scapegoats, punching bags, breadwinners, and confidants? What countless family and professional units would outright unravel and disintegrate, and then the fabric of society follow, if not for the ovarios deep in the weave?
I write this post not to devalue men or their contribution to society. Their role and relevance are unquestioned.
But please, friends, let us elevate and amplify our praise of women, yes? It is well past time, and there is plenty of room to share on the pedestal.
For a heartfelt rendering of women’s strong, stoic resilience, check out my colleague’s post on her Smiling Grandma.
“There are all kinds of courage,” said Dumbledore, smiling. “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends. I therefore award ten points to Mr. Neville Longbottom!” ― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Strength in numbers. Walking onto the volleyball court, toward a protest march, and the living room at Thanksgiving, consider how much braver we feel when surrounded by people on our own ‘side’. The other school is bigger and richer, but we are scrappy and go after every point together. Counter protesters look hostile and potentially violent, but we outnumber them. Our loud cousin carries a foil of sharp political attacks, but my sister and I parry together with aplomb. Though I still feel tension entering these conflicts, the balance between threat and challenge feels more equal with my companions than if I were alone. Comradery makes me brave… It may also make me susceptible to mindless group think, oversimplified binary labeling, and impulsive dehumanization of out groups and their members. There are risks to strong tribal solidarity.
This is why every tribe needs its loyal, internal critics. They make us more thoughtful and help us recognize gaps and inconsistencies in our rationale and actions. They keep us honest and hold us accountable to our professed mission and values. We recognize them by the discomfort they cause in our conscience. It’s worth assessing regularly how we treat these individuals; and most often they are just that—individuals—standing alone, raising warnings and braving our collective resistance, dismissal, rejection, and backlash.
What would it take for us to welcome our internal critics and their valuable dissent more generously?
Doesn’t it ultimately go back to our own inner work? What happens when each of us is just a little more willing to be depolarized? What are we like to be around? How do we act? In my best moments, I feel peaceful. I present as grounded and secure, unwavering in my core convictions, and yet flexible and curious about approach, method, and innovation. As we open our minds, manifest through posture, expressions, and energy, we invite others to speak their minds more often. We hold space, pay attention, and make it safe for diverse perspectives to comingle, integrate, and transform. Our own personal openness lays the foundation for collective inclusion and belonging of each individual, thereby facilitating each person’s signature contribution to the collective growth and good. The We gets stronger as our connections across difference thicken; our weave tightens; our courage grows synergistically.
For a striking example of how putting down our spears can lead to connection and peace, without betraying our beliefs (and in fact making them stronger), read this excellent piece by Columbia psychology professor Peter Coleman, written for Divided We Fall, about the time when Pro-Life and Pro-Choice leaders met in secret in the 1990s:
“…Out of concern over more violence, three pro-life and three pro-choice leaders came together for secret dialogues. They were six women activists who had been fighting against one another over abortion for decades.
“The talks were initiated by Laura Chasin and Susan Podziba of the Public Conversations Project, who reached out quietly to these leaders and urged them to consider meeting with the opposition. They eventually agreed and although the process was initially excruciating, with expert facilitation they managed to continue meeting together for years. Over time, they learned to work with each other despite their concerns for their careers and personal safety. Then, on January 28, 2001, they went public by co-authoring an article in the Boston Globe called ‘Talking with the Enemy.’
“One participant noted, ‘We never talk on our own sides about the shades of gray. When you are involved in a political movement like we are, we are focused on mobilizing the troops and the way you do that is we paint things in the starkest possible terms so that people are moved to act, so they know what to do. We don’t have conversations about things we have doubts about or are more murky.’ The challenges posed by the conversations and the quality of engagement opened the leaders’ minds to previously neglected aspects of their own views, which ultimately changed their approaches to advocacy.”
Consider Liz Cheney, Lisa Murkowski, and Adam Kinzinger, and Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. We may or may not agree with their respective positions and actions. And we can still all admire their courage in standing up to their own teams in service of their convictions and commitments. Of note, they do this mostly without spreading toxic disrespect and vitriol. Such self-control is to be lauded these days, no question.
* * * *
Depolarizers practice self-awareness, self-regulation, and excellent query skills. We train to not only tolerate and withstand disagreement, but to embrace and wrestle with it. We do not wish to vanquish our opposition; rather we seek to understand and connect, to find the win-wins whenever possible. We hold relationship in shared humanity above all, and we connect through deep curiosity, humility, empathy, generosity, and respect. We understand the value of internal dissent, and the importance of holding ourselves accountable to our stated mission and values.
These skills apply in politics, and also in every other life domain. How are you already a depolarizing, de-escalating, and connecting force across difference in your life? Who benefits from this contribution of yours? What does it cost you? What makes you willing to pay it? What would make it easier and more rewarding to expand this practice to other domains of your life? What would that look and feel like?
How else should we continue this discussion and practice?
**So sorry for the weird font/formatting, friends–I cannot figure out how it happens or how to fix it!
When you think or say these phrases, what is the context? What message are you harboring, or trying to convey—connection or distance, or something else?
Can you truly not imagine, understand, or relate? What if you tried harder (or at all)? How would it affect you if you could imagine, understand, and relate, or if you would ever, under certain circumstances? How would this altered relationship to the situation (and person) feel?
I have written before about what happened when I said, “I can’t imagine” to a black classmate. It was humbling. I submit that we could all humble ourselves a little more these days.
My last pre-pandemic solo trip was to Loveland, Colorado, for the last retreat of Leading Organizations to Health, Cohort 11. It feels cosmically fitting for my first solo trip since COVID to be a return for the first in person LOH alumni gathering in this time, last weekend. OMG, friends, it was the next best thing to going home. Other than our leaders, I had only met my fellow alums over Zoom these last two years. And now I have 8 amazing new friends. Though separated by occupation, specialty, generation, and geography, we all speak fluently the as yet rare and reverent language of relationship-centered leadership. This is my tribe.
I am the twelve year-old girl, refugee in a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
I have written on this blog many times about seeking, honoring, and really exercising our shared humanity —35 posts appear when I search the site for the phrase. Even since I started blogging 7 years ago, though, it feels ever more urgent that we practice this every day.
This week my good friend Donna asked me to re-articulate my Why. Again, I’m sure it was cosmic inspiration that moved her. Have I ever written my Why statement here? It was ‘to optimize relationships with and between all people I meet.’ And by optimize I meant to make more understanding, more connecting, and more meaningful. Today, I think I have to be much more specific:
My Why is to help us all see at least a part of ourselves in every person we meet.
I intend to practice and model this first myself—to really internalize the truth that I am myself and also every other soul—that we are all born with the same needs, the same aspirations, the same set of possibilities. Each of our unique, complex constellations of birth circumstance lottery, serial life experiences, and intrinsic wiring shapes us in ways we can only partially understand in our thinking brains. What we have not the capacity to think or speak, often can only be felt. And when we contact another soul who has also felt what we feel, or who can imagine, understand, or relate in some way, WOW, how healing is that? I bet we can all recall at least a few instances when those deep, meaningful connections occurred across apparently wide gaps of background, class, or other social construct. And why do we remember? Because we were moved, alerted, and maybe a little alarmed? Or maybe we have forgotten, because to come too close to someone’s experience that makes us uncomfortable can trigger a distancing reflex—self-image-protecting, perhaps.
In recent years I have internalized the admonishment to never say, or really even think, “What is wrong with you?” Rather, I remind myself to ask, “What happened to you?” In every context, this one switch opens the door to curiosity, imagination, understanding, relationship, and connection. It allows space for our deeply shared humanity to surface and teach me what I need to know, or at least to prompt humility ahead of blind judgment and dismissal. Substitute “them” for “you” in these sentences, and see how easily and willingly we throw away whole groups of people with our in- and out-group identities and ideologies.
May we all see a part of ourselves in every person we meet, especially the ones who make us say, “I can’t imagine, I can’t understand, I can’t relate, and I would never…” Let that seeing move us to put down our judgments and take up empathy, compassion, and connection instead. We will all be better for it.