Even the ‘Oppressor’ Deserves Safety and Support

This weekend I reflected in gratitude at my LOH experience in the past year. After resonating with Dr. Suchman’s moving keynote at a physician health conference in 2018, I sought him out to express thanks. He encouraged me to apply for the program. Then he coached me twice on getting institutional support, something I had never done before. All through the program, he and Diane Rawlins, two of the best teachers I have had (and that is saying a lot), led us all through ten months of complex conceptual learning and skills practice. Even better, they helped us synthesize and integrate learning between sessions, applying concepts through practice in our natural habitats, knowing we could report back to the group to debrief and trouble shoot before heading back into ‘the trenches.’ LOH runs annual reunions, refreshers and mixers during which attendees from different cohorts can meet, bond, and both expand and tighten our community of lifelong learners. In the time of COVID, alum meetings have occurred about every two weeks over Zoom, from the comfort of our homes all across the country. The more I think about it, the more I wish everybody had this kind of safety and support—this loving learning lab and community—to acquire scary new skills that, when practiced, benefit many more people than just us learners.

I imagine this may be what participants in the White Men’s Caucus feel. Read all about it in Four Days to Change, which I started and finished in about three sittings. –No really, read this book. It provides a unique and profoundly important perspective on the true meaning of inclusion, that is, white men absolutely need to be included in leading and benefiting from systemic change for equity, not just passively doing the changing for others’ sake. During the Caucus retreat, white men are both challenged and supported to dig deep into their own privilege. Inescapable mirrors of truth and profound discomfort, and also of love and compassion, surround them for four days. They are expected to feel tremendous guilt and shame, both natural emotions that occur on the path of self-discovery and humility. But rather than weaponizing these feelings, facilitators love the attendees through them, shepherding them through the emotional (shit)storm to a place of self-compassion and forgiveness. This is where their outward humility, openness, and sincere advocacy for inclusion and diversity take root—because they experience it first hand from their teachers and peer learners. Leadership is hard enough, but leading initiatives in diversity, equity, and inclusion is a whole other dimension of complexity. How can we expect any leader, white male or otherwise (but white males especially), to do it well alone, without a core peer group willing to hold their feet to the fire with both love and conviction?

I wrote earlier this year, “Practicing inclusion INCLUDES the OWG (Old White Guy) ‘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.” 

Michael Welp writes in Four Days, “(My mentor) inspired me when he (said), ‘The only way to touch other white men is through love.’  His words have always stayed with me.  However, the overall pattern observed in my dissertation was that white male diversity advocates disconnected from other white men and drew most of their support from white women and people of color.  They were frustrated and angry toward other white men.” 

Imagine people of your own tribe, a tribe you may lead in good faith, suddenly confronting you about biases and prejudices that you never knew you had, telling you how you’re harming people all around the tribe, and that you have to change it all now, adopt a new set of beliefs and initiatives today, and they will accept nothing less than your complete and unquestioning compliance because you are simply in the wrong.  Would you respond better if they came at you with such accusations and demands, or came alongside you with a grave and critical invitation to curiosity and learning together, for the good of the whole tribe, yourself included?  Which approach is more likely to yield tangible results in the near term?  Which one is more likely to still engage you in the long term?

We can learn important lessons from addiction medicine.  Patients succeed in rehab with a lot of grit and commitment.  They also benefit from the unyielding support and dedication of treatment staff and various environmental safety precautions.  But relapse rates are high (40-80%) in no small part because the safety and support so crucial to getting sober in rehab too often simply do not exist in an addict’s natural habitat.  

The converse was found to be true among American servicemen who fought in the Vietnam War.  Up to 20% of them were found to be addicted to heroin while overseas.  But upon return, only 5% of those who recovered relapsed.  After rigorous study (by a well-respected woman researcher, whose results and report were initially questioned and even derided—but that’s for another post), it is now widely accepted that the environment plays a key role in our behaviors, habits, and ability to change.  Soldiers in Vietnam, as James Clear writes, “spent all day surrounded by cues triggering heroin use: it was easy to access, they were engulfed by the constant stress of war, they built friendships with fellow soldiers who were also heroin users, and they were thousands of miles from home. Once a soldier returned to the United States, though, he found himself in an environment devoid of those triggers. When the context changed, so did the habit.”

The system often dictates, or at least strongly influences, how we perceive, think, behave, and relate. And we are the system, every one of us. By assimilating to the dominant white male culture, even as we see ourselves as resistors, we perpetuate it. But when we resist by only opposing our white male counterparts, without also enrolling them in the resistance movement as equals, we also undermine our own progress. Everybody deserves the safety and support to do their own personal Reckoning, Rumbling, and Revolution, as Brené Brown describes in her book Rising Strong. Real positive change is grounded in vulnerability, humility, and courage. If we really expect our white male leaders to change in ways fundamental and profound enough to advance equity in any meaningful way, they need the safety and support to reckon and rumble with their resistance, their rage, their fear, culture, identity, relationships, memories, realizations—all of it—with people they can relate to and who can hold them up fully, who will not turn away from or against them. As I wrote last week, more and more I see that perhaps only other white men can truly do this.

To be clear, this post is not an apology for white male supremacy and the vast suffering this mentality has wreaked all throughout history.  I just think it’s important, and too seldom attended to, that white men also suffer in and from the culture they dominate.  And in order to really change this culture for the better, we all need to support one another, white men included.

Where Is the Light?

covid fairy penguins melbourne

Photo by Tobias Baumgaertner, Fairy penguins near Melbourne, Australia

*deep breath*

I always wonder about you, dear reader.  Where does this post find you, since we last connected?  How are you?

It’s a good practice to check in with ourselves regularly.  These nine weeks of sheltering in place have exercised my patience, awareness, and identity, among other things.  What have they done for you?  How are you?

For a couple weeks now I have felt all but overwhelmed by darkness.  Infection and death rates have slowed, but they will continue to accumulate indefinitely.  I worry that we will become inured, calloused, to the human toll.  PPE is still in short supply at hospitals across the country. Thousands of my colleagues continue to risk both their physical as well as mental and emotional lives to care for gravely ill patients.  They leave their families and support networks to become the sole supports for patients alone in the hospital, whose own loved ones may not visit, even in the hour of death.

Mostly I have felt burdened by the fighting.  The shouting, protesting, mean memes, and ad hominem all around me, directed both by and at my friends and colleagues.  Important reflections and insights arose this week that helped me see clearly the internal origins of my distress.  I re-accepted and re-integrated these parts of myself.  I was able to laugh out loud, exclaiming, “How fascinating!”  I know I will necessarily repeat this discovery exercise ad nauseam, ad infinitum—such is life, karma says, also laughing.  But for now I feel lighter, unburdened, more at peace.

So I thought about role models for peace.  I feel so lucky to have so many.  But one in particular shone in my consciousness this week:  Dr. Vivek Murthy, our 19th Surgeon General.  He has published a book, Together, in which he “makes a case for loneliness as a public health concern: a root cause and contributor to many of the epidemics sweeping the world today from alcohol and drug addiction to violence to depression and anxiety. Loneliness, he argues, is affecting not only our health but also how our children experience school, how we perform in the workplace, and the sense of division and polarization in our society.”

I recently watched a live interview with him conducted by Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, widow of Dr. Paul Kalanithi, who wrote When Breath Becomes Air.  I listened with one earbud, watching in my peripheral vision, while hurrying around my kitchen, preparing chicken and assembling a salad, all before rushing to host a Zoom workout.  It struck me that in stark contrast to my frenetic energy at that moment, Dr. Murthy presented only calm and serenity.  He answered every question with love, joy, conviction, and equanimity.  I noticed and marveled.  Then I rushed around some more and got on with my evening tasks.

Looking back, I have felt this serene and loving presence every time he speaks.  He has a way of making everybody in the room comfortable, welcome, and included.  Even if he’s interacting only with a moderator, it feels like he’s speaking to me personally.  He sees me, he gets me.  He cares about me.  In searching for the Kalanithi interview, I came across this lecture and discussion he gave at Stanford University in 2015.  I hope you will take the time to watch (or at least listen).  Notice how he shares stories of his parents, his patients, and people he met during his national ‘listening tour’ at the beginning of his tenure as Surgeon General.  Hear how he sees and knows every one of these people in their whole humanity.  Abraham Verghese, physician, author of Cutting for Stone, and another hero of the profession, moderated the Q&A, and also named Dr. Murthy’s equanimity—his peacefulness.  Notice how Murthy validates questions asked by students and faculty alike.  Observe his humility, juxtaposed with a resolute, unwavering point of view.  Do you feel it?  Does he not inspire you to be a better person?

Dr. Murthy and his wife, Dr. Alice Chen, have written an open letter to us medical professionals, in the midst of this global pandemic.  Reading it, once again I feel seen, understood, and comforted.  I feel true belonging in a proud and humble tribe of professionals, committed to service.  They shine their light on all of us, so we may see the path before us more clearly and walk more confidently, knowing we’ got our peeps holding us up.  This, in turn, gives us the strength and love to hold up others along the way.

I see the light tonight.  It emanates from my fellow and sister humans, and it saves me.

For a little more light, check out this Jon S. Randal Peace Page post with the picture of the penguins.  In it you will read about gems like John Krazinski’s “Some Good News” YouTube series, and Chris LaCass, founder of Pandemic Kitchen, feeding New York City’s homeless.  You can also share your own stories of inspiration and light in the darkness.

Where is your light today?  How will you keep it in front, as we travel this long road together?

 

 

Please Stop With the Fighting

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What a difference a week makes.  How are you feeling?  I can only describe my own experience as ‘off.’  Things feel heavy, fraught, tense, uncertain, and anxious.  All the talking and writing I do about tolerating uncertainty and holding space for tension feels almost comically hypocritical right now, as I grapple with my own practices.  But more than that, I feel accelerated degradation of relationships all around me.  Armed men march and yell at the Michigan capitol building (where a woman governor serves).  More armed men gather in front of state public health director Dr. Amy Acton’s house in Ohio (not the capitol, where a man governor serves), saying there will be no violence, “for now.”

People on the ‘side’ of public health deride decisions to reopen state economies as willfully ignorant, even malicious.  People on the ‘side’ of reopening economies derail stay at home orders as fascist.  Perhaps these are the minority voices of each ‘side’, but they are loud, and they dominate public discourse and social media (I know, I know, moderate my intake, yada yada).  Yet another false dichotomy escalates with increasing vehemence on both sides.  I have mulled it for weeks and not found a good way to write about it.

Late yesterday, I found two pieces that help, written by conservatives I respect.

In the first, “What Republicans’ Kool Aid Moment Means for the Rest of Us”, Chris Ladd outlines our fatal flaw as humans, and then asks some profoundly important questions about how to resist the ultimate pitfalls of that flaw:

“Confronted with displays of cult loyalty we commonly resort to some mistaken conclusions, dismissing these people as crazy or stupid. These assumptions are born of the same logic that leads people to blame the sick for their illness, a desire to manufacture some difference between them and us, something that would leave us immune to their condition. We want to believe that there’s something uniquely broken, inferior, or even subhuman about the people in those pathetically sad images of self-destruction. Those dismissive characterizations of cultists aren’t just false, they are dangerous.

“We are not inherently rational creatures. By nature, our model of reality is not a product of careful individual inquiry, formed through a critical review of all available data, but a social construct heavily influenced by our preferences, hopes, and the collective will of our tribe. Human beings are capable of independent, rational thought premised on a body of constantly moving data, just like we are capable of juggling or riding a bike. Absent special training, critical, data-centered reasoning is so effortful, difficult and unnatural that any political order premised on the rationality of the average man will be consistently unstable.

“Even with careful training over years, a life of critical thought remains a challenging endeavor, costly to maintain and not suited to every circumstance. Riding a bike sounds easy once you’ve learned to do it but try dialing your phone or eating a sandwich while peddling and you’ll see the challenge. Careful, critical reasoning is resource-expensive. None of us engage in it as much as we think we do.

* * * * *

In the second essay, “What If We Loved Them Both?”  David French invites us to exercise that resource-expensive skill of critical, rational, nuanced and complex analysis:

“Once again, our nation is faced with the painful process of sorting through grave sexual assault allegations against a powerful man. Once again, the public assessment of the veracity of those claims is lining up all-too-neatly with the partisan needs of the moment. Those who object to the rush to judgment against the accused will often ask if how we’d respond if, say, Joe Biden or Brett Kavanaugh was someone you loved. What if he was your father or grandfather. Would you feel like they’d been treated fairly?

“The counter is quick. What if Tara Reade or Christine Blasey Ford was someone you loved? Can you imagine how you’d feel as they mustered up the courage to tell a dreadful story and then you watched them endure the inevitable slings and arrows of scorn, hatred, and mockery?

“But there’s a different, better construct. What would the world look like if an imperfect population that possessed imperfect knowledge loved them both?  

“Due process is just, and it’s indispensable to the pursuit of justice. It is the answer to the question at the start of this newsletter—in the most fraught of claims and the most vicious of crimes—What if we loved them both? What if both accused and accuser were of equal worth? When we consider the right to bring a claim, the requirements of evidence, and even the time limits imposed on cases (given the difficulty of both defending against and proving very old allegations), we not only humbly acknowledge our inability to peer into a person’s soul to discern truth, we also acknowledge that even the mightiest man can and should be brought low when the evidence dictates. 

“But protecting due process (like protecting free speech) is hard. Just as permitting bad speech is a necessity for maintaining the larger, just legal structure of free speech—individual injustices can also protect the larger, necessary structure of due process.

“Each person involved in the controversy is of equal worth, a human being created in God’s image. That means the accusers have a right to bring their claim and be heard, respectfully and fully. That means the accused have their own rights to defend themselves, and a presumption of innocence is wise. Our own extreme fallibility and inability to peer into a human soul means that we should diligently seek external evidence that corroborates or rebuts any allegation or defense. 

“It is true that our culture has frequently failed women. It has failed in the obligation to treat them with respect or to fully hear or fairly consider their claims of terrible crimes. It is also true that our culture has also failed men, especially black men. There are simply too many terribly tragic tales of men dying at the hands of a mob in the face of an unsubstantiated claim of sexual misconduct. Even today, there are echoes of that awful injustice in the way in which black men are treated in campus courts. 

“But the answer to historical injustice isn’t another, equal and opposite injustice. That’s the score-settling that leads to endless ideological and partisan conflict. Instead, the answer is to discern the correct standard, and hew to it as closely as we can. Conservatives should not seek ‘revenge’ for Brett Kavanaugh. Progressives should not give in to the temptation of believing a Democrat through highly-subjective judgments of ‘demeanor’ or ‘temperament.’ That’s the God’s-eye view. And human beings are terrible at playing God.” 

* * * * *

The essays above, while encouraging, also ring abstract and esoteric.  How do we take these lofty ideals and apply them today, in our daily lives, so as not to feel so disconnected, so disparate?  Because what good are ideals if we cannot live them out?  We really are all in this together.  What’s helping you remember that, really feel it, right now?

In our lifetime, there may be no more important moment than right now to recognize and truly honor, in our minds, hearts, and bodies, our shared humanity.  I took a stab at an action plan with the list below.  What would you add?

  1. Stop thinking ‘we’ are better than ‘them’; really try hard to see everybody as equally worthy to engage.
  2. Marshal our best skills at patience and generosity when ‘they’ say they’re better than ‘us.’
  3. Focus on shared goals and humanity— how are we all ‘us’?
  4. Lead by example resisting the urge to oversimplify and over generalize; look for and point out complexity and nuance.  See this as a strength rather than a weakness.
  5. Do not fall for baiting and inciting statements meant to trigger defensiveness.
  6. Acknowledge and concede the flaws and faults of ‘our side’; encourage others to do the same.
  7. Disengage, for the moment, when ‘opponents’ as well as ‘allies’ show themselves, or we find ourselves, to be uninterested in following or unable to follow these rules of engagement. Even when our intentions are earnest, this stuff is hard. And it takes grit and perseverance to train. And almost all of us are total novices at it. So we have a LONG way to go. Try again later. And again, and again, and again.