Excavating the Dark Side of the Shitpile

Who’s ready to get off this roller coaster?

Bazinga, no dice!  We are strapped in like fat toddlers to professionally installed car seats and this hellish ride ain’t stopping anytime soon. 

What am I talking about?  COVID?  Racial injustice?  The economy?  Politics?  Riots and looting?  Wildfires?  Square dancing hurricanes?  Climate change?  Well, all of it, of course.  We are in it, my friends.  Oh. Yeah.

*sigh*

As always, my friend Donna enlightens me and I feel better.  In our recent conversation I recalled her assertion a decade ago that humanity pushes toward ever increasing consciousness and enlightenment.  Right after the 2016 election I may have laughed out loud (or cried) at this idea.  But today I take a different perspective.  How can I say this in the middle of all the tumult and crisis?  Because tumult and crisis are exactly the evidence of impending breakthrough.  Anyone who has done any truly deep, inner work knows that enlightenment cannot come without a whole shit-ton of pain and suffering.  We also know that on the other, light side, when we get there, the effort was always worth it.  My “Sh*tpile” post may be only the second or third I ever wrote on this blog:

Everybody has one.  We inherit large parts of it from our parents, whose parents passed theirs down, etc.  Life experiences add mass and odor as we grow up.  It sits squarely in the middle of the house of our existence.  For the most part, we simply live our lives around it, walking past every day, careful not to knock any pieces off.  The surface gets dry and crusty; we grow accustomed to the smell.  No big deal.

Once in a while, something moves us to start digging, like that sudden urge to clean out the closet.  We quickly learn that sh*tpile insides stay fresh and painful, like unhealed wounds when scabs suddenly get torn off.  Our eyes water, our senses are overwhelmed, and we want to escape, and fast.  Maybe we avoid that room for a while, or we come back driving a tank to flatten the pile, to the destruction of other property.

Then last year I wrote about the poop flinging that happens when somebody else knocks off a piece of our shitpile, in “All Hail Your Dark Side”: 

What triggers you?

I don’t mean your pet peeves (please, stop using “there’s” when speaking about anything in the plural).  I mean what gets under your skin and affects you viscerally, really hijacks you?  I’m talking about the thing that escalates you so fast or intensely it’s like an out of body experience—you know you’re overreacting, you know it’s irrational, and yet all you can do is sit by and watch it unfold, powerless to control or direct it.

I submit that we are at this moment, collectively, neck deep in our triggered societal shitpile. I’m thinking mostly about systemic American racism, but I also include our profoundly political, ideological, and cultural polarization.  We’ got some serious reckoning to do, my peeps.  How the hell did we get here, and how the f*** do we get out?

“What if this is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?”  Valarie Kaur asks.  What if this is exactly the Work we all need to do to reach that higher plane of human relationship?  What if we are all called to participate—fully, both feet, deep end—with only one another as life preservers?  Brené Brown calls it “Day 2,” the messy middle between realization and resolution, where the Reckoning, Rumbling, and Revolution happen.  It’s the second act in Joseph Cambell’s hero story arc, after the hero has tried every way of avoiding, denying, deflecting, and averting the task, and finally resigns, and rises, to meet it.  The gripping, tense, thrilling part of any story is this messy middle, the part we dread and relish at the same time.

In the Shitpile post I assert that we can use our life manure to cultivate a life garden that brings joy, fulfillment, and peace.  I use the metaphor of wise gardeners and tools that we can recruit to make the Work easier and more meaningful.  The pile is deep, pungent, and squishy in that way that creates a vacuum, sucking you further in every time you move, apparently impossible to escape.  But we can do it.  Look for help from people who already wield the most effective implements—Curiosity, Humility, Respect, Openness, Non-judgment, Kindness, Empathy, Self-Awareness, and Self-Control.

I present below my hardware store of other tools, accumulated to date, that help me relish ‘way more than dread.  They inform, educate, challenge, and stimulate me.  Along with my pit crew, these resources and practices give me the vital energy and strength, and really the joy, to pursue the hard conversations, to engage ‘the opposition,’ and to make a God. Damn. Difference.  I hope at least some of it resonates with you.  What else would you add to the store?

The Books

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Four Days to Change by Micheal Welp

How to Be and Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (still getting through this one—it’s the esoteric lecture)

Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad (will revisit this one—it’s the life workbook)

But I Don’t See You as Asian by Bruce Reyes-Chow

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

The Websites/Groups/Resources

Braver Angels—depolarizing America, one conversation at a time

Uprooting Inequity –Ayo Magwood—American history scholar teaches history of racism in America online.  I’ve taken two of her classes and recommend them highly.

The Root—“The Blacker the Content the Sweeter the Truth”

The Dispatch—conservative news

All Sides—news from left, center, and right organized around topic/issue

David French, The French Press

Chris Ladd, Political Orphans, and formerly GOPLifer

The Concepts and Practices

Technical vs Adaptive Challenges and Change—Heifetz and Linsky

PEARLS:  Fostering connection in communication—a copyrighted framework from the Academy of Communication in HealthcarePartnership, Empathy, Acknowledgement, Respect, Legitimation, Support

Asking truly Open, Honest Questions—Parker Palmer, Center for Courage and Renewal

Cone in the Box:  Perspective taking—Judy Sorum Brown

Managing Polarities—Barry Johnson

Witnessing

So much suffering, friends—everywhere, all the time, every day.  It’s overwhelming. 

Our current circumstances feel like the most distressing case of sensory overload I have ever experienced:  intense, prolonged, and complicated.  Paradoxically, I also often feel like my head and heart could explode from sheer hopefulness—at no other time in my life have I felt so much potential for meaningful, positive collective change.  We stand on the knife edge of a continental divide of sorts, simultaneously overlooking the worst and best extremes of humanity.

People. Are. Losing it. 

Patients with underlying anxiety and depression are increasingly agitated and even combative, at home and in the clinic.  They threaten themselves and/or office staff, sometimes with mortal results.  Lifelong friendships are ending from irreconcilable differences over politics, ideology, and disagreements over social distancing and masking, among other things.  People lash out in rage at the slightest, often innocent provocations.  We doom scroll on social media, amplifying and reverberating (mis)information in our echo chambers, driving ourselves to the cliff’s edge of sanity with fear, fury, and hatred.

I watch it unfold before my eyes, escalating in the past few weeks.  I have joked for a while that the world may end in my lifetime; now it feels less and less like a joke. 

How we do process it all?  How do we get through?

Physicians, therapists, nurses, and many other professionals make a living watching and listening to people through their suffering.  Often we cannot cure people’s problems; sometimes it feels like we can’t even help.  But the truth is we can always help—all of us.

By simply being present to someone in pain, we help.   By not looking or running away, by sitting and facing them full on, we help.  By allowing, even embracing our own discomfort, and holding safe, quiet space for another’s suffering, we help.  We know this because when we suffer, the loving presence of others is what heals us first.

I cannot take away your depression or anxiety.  I cannot create a stronger social support network for you.  I cannot get you a job, bring back your deceased loved one, make the pandemic go away, or stop the next police officer from profiling your son by his skin color.  But I can sit with you in your grief.  I can stand in solidarity with you and advocate for our common cause.  Most importantly, I can take good care of myself so I can keep showing up for you and all those who may need to lean on me from time to time.  I have those who let me lean on them sometimes, too, and I make sure to thank them often.

To witness means to see.  The best witnesses make us feel seen, heard, understood, accepted, and loved, no matter what.  This is what we can do for one another right now.  It is the highest calling of humanity, to take care of each and every other as ourselves.  It is an infinite rather than a finite calculation.  Love shared is multiplied, not divided.  Caring for you feeds me too, whereas disconnecting from you costs me more than I know, and diminishes us all.

“Although the tale of human experience is certainly universal, it contains unique elements for each us and we continue the art of storytelling, both verbally and nonverbally, each and every day. While some stories are sweeter than others, all long for the benefit and necessity of a witness, for a witness assures us that our stories are heard, contained, and transcend time; for it can be said that one is never truly forgotten when one is shared and carried in the hearts of others.” –Kristi Pikiewicz, PhD

The only way out is through. The best way through is together.

Love Letters for My Soul

Taking a break from COVID, racism, equity and other heavy things this week, my friends.  It’s too much, what with RBG’s recurrent metastatic cancer and John Lewis’s death.  I’ve been glued to my phone and computers all week, reading, digesting, observing, integrating, posting, connecting and conversing.  I had at least three important ideas for the blog, and they all need to marinate longer.

But I still had to write!  I owe letters to three friends, and they can wait.  What needed doing tonight were five love letters to strangers. 

Sometime this spring, while sheltering at home, I discovered More Love Letters.  Their mission is simple:

Deliver hand written letters to people who could use some extra love via snail mail.

People submit nominations for letter recipients, and every month the MLL team selects five to post.  Each recipient’s nominator writes a heartfelt request, and supplies an address.  Letters are requested to be postmarked by the last day of the month (but I bet they’d take some tardy ones, because they are sent with love?).  Tonight I wrote my second ever set of love letters, on washi tape stationery, of course.  I may have more cards and tape than I will use in my lifetime, so I’m more than happy to share!  Maybe next month I will include a blank card and envelope as a gift for the recipient to pass along—I’ll even put a stamp on it!

In this time of tumult and conflict, of heaviness and stress, reaching out to offer some light to others heals me.  They will not know who I am (well, unless they happen to read this post, I guess), and I will not get a card back in reply.  I get to write some encouraging words that might brighten someone’s day.  But I do it for myself as much as for them.

Maybe you could use a mutual pick-me-up, too?  Each one took less than five minutes.  The words came easily, organically, and happily.  “Holding you in light,” “Sending love and support,” “Wishing you everything you need in this crazy time.” Easy peasy, written sincerely–it feels so good.  You don’t have to write to all five nominees—do what moves you.  Maybe you’ll be inspired to also drop a note to your best friend, your colleague who’s challenged, or someone who recently crossed your mind, who’d probably love to know you were thinking of them.

Now is exactly the time to connect, don’t you think?

Oh and I have no financial or other interests in this organization. I just love that they encourage connection and snail mail, two of my favorite things.