The Loving and Entwined Life

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“Love and friendship dissolve the rigidities of the isolated self, force new perspectives, alter judgments and keep in working order the emotional substratum on which all profound comprehension of human affairs must rest.”

John W. Gardner, Self-Renewal, 1963

 

How often do you take a breath, take a moment, and reflect on the deep, thick connections that hold you up?

I say over and again that our relationships kill us or save us.  But it’s not merely relationships that save us, it’s connection.  I named this blog honestly!  John O’Donohue writes in Anam Cara, “We need more resonant words to mirror this than the tired word relationship.  Phrases like ‘an ancient circle closes’ or ‘an ancient belonging awakens and discovers itself’ help to bring out the deeper meaning and mystery of encounter…  Two people who are really awakened inhabit the one circle of belonging.  They have awakened a more ancient force around them that will hold them together and mind them.”

Friends really do take you further.

This past week I finished listening to David Brooks’s latest book, The Second Mountain.  I highly recommend it.  He makes a critical and compassionate assessment of the current state of society, what he refers to as a severely torn social fabric.  We are dangerously, existentially disconnected.

David Blankenhorn and Bill Doherty, co-founders of Better Angels, see the same, and seek specifically to address our perilous political polarization.  Last Saturday I attended their workshop to help us depolarize from within our own political tribes.  The goal of the organization and each workshop is to depolarize, not to convert. The method is communication to connect, not to convince.  Both Brooks and Better Angels seek to strengthen our most meaningful ties to one another.  In Brooks’s words, about his new organization, Weave: “The Weaver movement is repairing our country’s social fabric, which is badly frayed by distrust, division and exclusion. People are quietly working across America to end loneliness and isolation and weave inclusive communities. Join us in shifting our culture from hyper-individualism that is all about personal success, to relationalism that puts relationships at the center of our lives.”

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On Tuesday I returned to my desk after a productive and gratifying work meeting, to read that Toni Morrison had died.  I was overcome with sadness, which surprised me.  I have never read any of her acclaimed novels.  I was not a follower, per se.  But I felt a loss as if I had known her personally.  I think it’s because she had a profound influence on one of the most important aspects of my life, early in my kids’ lives, with just a single verbal expression.

“When your child walks in the room, does your face light up?”

Morrison told Oprah in 2000:

“When my children used to walk in the room, when they were little, I looked at them to see if they had buckled their trousers or if their hair was combed or if their socks were up.  You think your affection and your deep love is on display because you’re caring for them. It’s not. When they see you, they see the critical face. But if you let your face speak what’s in your heart…because when they walked in the room, I was glad to see them. It’s just as small as that, you see.”

It’s so small and simple, and yet it alters the entire encounter, every time.  More and more I understand in my limbic brain, the part of the mind where we humans make meaning and where our decisions and actions originate, that it is how we are with people that matters, far more than what we say or what we do.  The majority of communication is non-verbal.  Morrison’s description of a parent’s facial expression, and the profound effect it has on a child, applies to all relationships and connections, or disconnections, for that matter.  It was not until she died that I realized how far her influence really reached in my life.  And it felt suddenly, unexpectedly, too late to thank her for it.

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So whose face lights up when they see you?

Whose presence awakens you and invites you to ‘inhabit the one circle of belonging’?

I recently made a list of these people in my life.  It is gratifyingly long, and growing.  It started with my mom.  I’m embarrassed that I did not notice overtly before now, and my gratitude cannot be adequately expressed in words.  I imagine she got it from my grandmother, one of the people I have admired most in the entire world.  I have met the others, my Counsel of Wisdom, my pit crew, throughout my life, from age 12 to only a couple years ago.  They are my Kalyana-mitra, or “noble friend”s, as O’Donohue describes them:  They “will not accept pretension but will gently and very firmly confront you with your own blindness.  No one can see his life totally.  As there is a blind spot in the retina of the human eye, there is also in the soul a blind side where you are not able to see.  Therefore you must depend on the one you love to see for you what you cannot see for yourself.  Your Kalyana-mitra complements your vision in a kind and critical way.  Such friendship is creative and critical; it is willing to negotiate awkward and uneven territories of contradiction and woundedness.”

In Self-Renewal, John Gardner takes this idea from the personal friendship to society:  “A tradition of vigorous criticism is essential to the renewal of a society.  A nation is not helped much by citizens whose love for their country leads them to shield it from life-giving criticism.  But neither is it helped much by critics without love, skilled in demolition but unskilled in the arts by which human institutions are nurtured and strengthened and made to flourish.  Neither uncritical lovers nor unloving critics make for the renewal of societies.”

David Brooks expresses the same in Second Mountain:  “Truth without love is harshness; love without truth is sentimentality.”  In her book Insight, Tasha Eurich suggests methods and exercises for engaging with our ‘loving critics,’ in service of improving honest and loving self-awareness, connection, and leadership.

Mesler book window

I have two goals this week on vacation:  Hike and read.

I brought Anam Cara by John O’Donohue, Self-Renewal by John W. Gardner, and What Moves at the Margins, a collection of Toni Morrison’s eloquent and important nonfiction writing.  Little did I know that the ideas in these books, read concurrently by cosmic accident (or more likely by divine inspiration), would weave in meaning with one another, as well as with my deepest and most meaningful life lessons to date.  How rewarding and awe-inspiring!

I pray today that my ‘soul’ and ‘noble friends’ know how much I appreciate their presence, guidance, support, and love; and that I may come even remotely close to serving them similarly.  May we all look to bless one another with our own souls every day.

Agency and Emergence

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When do you push forward, and when do you step back?

How do you decide, or is it decided for you?

How does this reciprocal rhythm oscillate and dance in your life?

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Modern western culture tells individuals and organizations alike: Grow! Move! Push! –Or die!  Competition and scarcity dominate the collective psyche, if not consciously then subconsciously, no question.  Even on vacation we are pressured to do something socially noteworthy, lest we have nothing to report upon return.  There is a palpable, frenetic, explicit and implicit drive—to keep driving.  I’m not complaining, necessarily.  Growth, innovation, evolution, improvement, advancement, development—I pursue these with as much fervor as anyone.  It has served me well!  My whole life the hard work (and a lot of luck) has paid off in spades, in school, work, and now leadership in multiple realms.  I have accomplished as much as I could have imagined at this age, and I’m just getting started!  How exciting and rewarding, living a life of audacious acceleration, of claiming agency, of “Yes, AND!”

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Tara Donovan, Chicago IL July 2019

Yet, lately I feel another energy emerging.  It came on unexpectedly, and I welcome it like my oldest friend.

I only realized it as I wrote about ‘Aunt Rachel,’ Dr. Rachel Remen, last month.  “I am called to slow down, to be still, more than I have been (have allowed?), for a very long time,” I wrote, quite spontaneously.  Those words forelighted a month of ‘settling and recharging… awareness and fulfillment,’ as I wrote to my friend, when I realized what was happening.  This meta-awareness always fills me with awe and gratitude, as if the cosmos lets me in on a secret, conspiring to prepare me for what lies ahead. Remen’s My Grandfather’s Blessings reminds me of the importance of human connection at the deepest level.  Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert makes me confident and brave to create, to make things to share, like this blog or a new oral presentation.  The Art of Possibility helps me dig deep, in a different way every time I reread it, for fundamental relational skills when I need them the most.

The week I wrote about Aunt Rachel, Maria Popova’s post on friendship as rendered by Kahlil Gibran crossed my email inbox.  The Prophet was one of my favorite books in high school.  I found it moving, inspiring, and reassuring, like a lovingly personal counselor, in those emotionally tumultuous adolescent times.  Popova’s post brought that comfort back, similar to how Remen’s book did in recent weeks.  I felt compelled to follow her sequential links to writings by Seneca, CS Lewis, David Whyte, and John O’Donohue, all on friendship.  She quotes Seneca, the stoic: “Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself…”  Something within me was deeply moved, activated to seek more.

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Tara Donovan, Chicago, IL, July 2019

How fascinating, what is with this fresh call on my attention?  I’m not sure, but I trust it fully, and have embraced it.  I found To Bless the Space Between Us by John O’Donohue, a book of the most eloquent blessings, and Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by David Whyte.  Both books quench my thirst for beautiful language that articulates the deep longing for meaning and connection, with myself as well as with others.  They call to me.

Between caring for patients, leading work teams, proposing new projects, LOH training, speaking engagements, wife-ing, parenting and friending, life could hardly be more challenging or fulfilling (I should also call my parents more often!).  I see every meeting, every letter, every message as a chance to show up all in, fully present, at my best.  To be my Best Self in all realms, I push myself to learn, practice, and excel, to exercise my agency in service of relationships and connection.  So sometimes the universe approaches me lovingly, jogging alongside, inviting me to slow down.  Take a break, he says, enjoy the view.  Soak it in.  Relish how far you’ve come, what you’ve built thus far.  Breathe deep, stretch out.  Rest a while.  What do you see, she asks, how does it feel? What have you learned, they say, what can you synthesize and integrate, before you march on with resolve and conviction once again, in the direction of your biggest dreams?

The word pairs below emerged, with a little nudging, over the past week.  I see them not as dichotomies, not at all in conflict.  Rather, they are each separate and inextricable sides of the same multifaceted polyhedron of life, necessary counterbalances for a healthy, fulfilling, and meaningful existence.  I started wearing my Yin-Yang ring in January.  It is meant to remind me that opposites are more often complementary than oppositional.  Our society values agency over emergence.  We endorse doing ahead of holding.  But practicing emergence is by no means passive, weak, or unproductive.  It is active, enthusiastic participation in the dance of life, the reciprocal movement of ebb and flow.  Childbirth and heartbeat are quintessential examples of the balance of Agency and Emergence, giving and receiving, contracting and relaxing.

What other word pairs would you add?

I commit to fully inhabiting, savoring this deliberate time and open space, however long it lasts.  Energy will shift again, as it always does.  I have the next self-improvement books and task lists in queue.  I’ll get on the blocks again, ready for the starting gun, soon enough.  But for now, I breathe deeply and look around in appreciation and learning.

 

   Agency                           Emergence

Control                             Relation

        Action                          Observation

Power                        Capacity

Acceleration                          Momentum

      Focus                         Zoom Out

Contraction                       Relaxation

Tightening                      Stretching

Exhale (blow)                     Inhale (smell)

  Intention                        Possibility

  Strength                        Elasticity

Telling                        Asking

             Make this happen                         What’s trying to happen?

            Tap the system                       Watch it spin a while

               Grip                        Hold loosely

Drive                      Ride

Take up space                          Hold space

Yang                     Yin

  Heartbeat

  Childbirth

The exhibit where I took the art photos:  https://smartmuseum.uchicago.edu/exhibitions/tara-donovan-fieldwork/

Our 5 Fundamental Needs

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To Feel:

 

Seen

Look what I can do

This is how I can contribute

See me achieve

 

Heard

Hear my concerns

Take me into account

 

Understood

Validate me

Normalize my feelings

Say you can relate

 

Accepted

Tell me I belong

 

Loved

Participate in the Messy with me

Commit to sticking with me through the hard shit

Let me be my whole self with you

Be your whole self with me

 

Children by parents

Patients by doctors

Students by teachers

Workers by managers

The led by their leaders

Spouses

Friends

 

What if?

 

 

Insight While Driving to Work

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Training for Better Angels, it occurs to me:
Confidence in excellent communication skills in order to enter difficult conversations without bailing or lashing out… is akin to the core stability required to get into and out of a deep squat.
It’s the bending down, feet flat, head up, in control and not falling over, that is the challenge—not the forcing up in a quick, mindless burst of brute strength. Bearing the load all the way down and standing back up gracefully, without causing or suffering injury: that is where our real power lies, in the gym and in conversation.

Tombstone Words

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Update, my friends:  My application for moderator training with Better Angels was accepted!  AND, they may let me help with workshops both in Illinois, where I live, and Colorado, my home state!  Woo hoooooooo!  So much good work going on in this organization, please take a look!

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This post is a three-part thought experiment.  Take some time with this one, maybe–sit up straight, take some deep breaths, and see where it takes you!  I invite you to write down your answers to the questions with a pen and paper.  And then please share in the comments how it lands!  Please know that I write purely out of curiosity and a deep desire for exploration and connection, and not out of judgment or an attempt at ‘pimping,’ as we used to call it in med school, when teachers asked us questions just to see us squirm and fail.

I credit my life coach and a new friend and mentor for instigating this post, and the ongoing conversations both in my own head and with others that I absolutely cannot wait to have as a result!  The thread that connects the experiments is this:  How do I show up in my life, and how do I feel about it?

 

Experiment 1

Imagine you’re at an awards ceremony; it’s the end of 2019.

You’re being honored and given an award for something.

You’re at the party, wandering amongst the guests/everyone present, listening to what people are saying about you.

They do not see you; but you will be present to receive the award later–you are not dead.

Who is there?  How have they organized themselves?  What is the vibe in the room?

What are people admiring about you?  What are the words they’re using as they speak about you?

What are their facial expressions, posture, and gestures as they describe you and their relationships with you?

…What else do you notice?

What is the name of this award, and why are you the recipient?

How do you feel doing this exercise?

What emotions/thoughts/memories does it bring up for you?

 

Experiment 2

Now it’s your funeral or memorial service.  Ask yourself the same questions as above, but in this similar and yet very different setting.

How are people dressed? How do they look like they feel?

Do they know how you want to be remembered and/or honored in death?

Who would be there if it happened today?  What about five years ago?  Ten years from now?

Now imagine that the three most frequent words uttered about you at this event will appear on your tombstone.  Which words would you like those to be?  Which do you think your funeral attendees will give you?  How easy or hard is it for you to imagine the latter, and how close to your own wishes are they likely to be, today, five years ago, or ten years from now?

 

Experiment 3

Now, imagine a different set of people attending the events above.

These are your opponents, adversaries, and enemies.  They are your inescapable work colleagues, direct reports, bosses, and your estranged family members.  They are also the people you see regularly on your commute, the homeless people you pass on the street, servers at your favorite restaurants, and people who work at your grocery store.  They are your kids’ former teachers, the customer service representatives at Comcast or United Airlines, your postal carrier, and the workers who collect your trash.  What would all of these people say about you at your awards ceremony and at your funeral?

I did the first exercise with my coach a few weeks ago; it was powerful, enlightening, and grounding.  The second and third experiments occurred to me today, and I will consider them, chew on them, in the coming weeks.

So…  How was it?

The Optimist and the Cynic

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Are you an optimist or a cynic?

I consider myself to be, wholly and without question, an Optimist—with a Big O.

In The Art of Possibility, Ben and Roz Zander describe a cynic as a passionate person who doesn’t want to be disappointed again.

By this definition, cynics are not altogether hopeless and negative; they are simply wary and cautious based on past experience.  Still, I judge cynics and find them tiresome.  I reject their gloom and doom outlook.  Sometimes I really just want to throttle them.  In their presence I turn up my outward optimism to happy headbanger volume.  I can tell this makes them a little crazed—they see me as Pollyannish, idealistic, and naïve—and likely wish to strangle me, too.

And here’s the thing:  I also possess a deep cynical streak; one that can really overtake my consciousness sometimes.

Every day I campaign ardently to empower myself and those around me, pointing to all the ways we can claim our agency and effect positive change.  I advocate for using all of our kindness, empathy, compassion, and connecting communication skills, in every situation—take the high road!  Be our Best Selves!  And yet at the same time, a darker part of me, my shadow side, silently tells a contemptuous story of the forces we fight against.  I paint a sinister picture in my mind of impediments made of ‘the other’ people—the small minded, the pessimistic, the underestimating, unbelieving, rigid, unimaginative, distrustful, conventional, supercilious, and condescending themThey are not like usThey are the problem.

Of course this is not true.  It’s just a story I tell—a counterproductive and self-sabotaging story.  How fascinating.

Sometimes I tell this unsympathetic story aloud, out of frustration, impatience, and exasperation.  Sometimes I actually name people and label them all those negative things I listed.  It feels justified and righteous.  But then I feel guilty, as if my worse self kidnapped the better me and held my optimism hostage until I vented against my better judgment.  I wonder when my words will come back and bite me in the butt?  What will I do then?

I suppose I can only claim passion and disappointment.  Sometimes I let the latter get the best of me and allow shadow to overtake the light.  It happens to the best of us; I can own it.  There is no need to disavow the disappointment and disillusionment, the dissatisfaction with what is.  If I didn’t care so much—about patient care, public policy, physician burnout, patient-physician relationship, and relationships in general—I would not suffer such vexations.  And it’s because I care so much that I fight on, to do my part to make it better.  I stay engaged in the important conversations, even if I have to take breaks and change forums at times.

Yes, I, the eternal optimist, harbor an inner, insubordinate cynic.  While most of me exclaims, “Humanity is so full of love and potential!” another part of me mutters subversively, “Also people suck.”  Some days (some weeks) the dark side wins, but it’s always temporary.  The Yin and the Yang, the shadow and the light, the tension of opposite energies—that’s what makes life so interesting, no?  We require both for contrast and context, to orient to what is in order to see what could be. 

The struggle for balance is real and at times exhausting.  And it’s always worth the effort.

Synthesis and Integration: Self and Other Focus

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Hey friends, how was your week?  Learn anything new and interesting?  Anneal any new ideas to existing frameworks in your already complex world view?  I did!  And it came in another big wave after my presentation on Friday.

I wrote last week about how I put together a new presentation.  For the first time, I added the idea of medicine as a complex adaptive system to a talk I gave to physicians at various levels of training and practice.  The objective of the presentation was for people to understand the scope of physician burnout, and leave with some ideas of how they could not only cope better themselves today, but also influence the system and move it toward a healthier, more compassionate state in the future.

As usual for my talks, I focused first on personal resilience.  Many physicians push back at this idea, and rightly so, as many medical organizations have instituted physician wellness programs aimed mainly at ‘fixing’ the doctors with yoga and meditation classes, while allowing the system that burns them out to continue its toxic trends toward over-regulation, loss of physician autonomy, and driving metrics that lie outside of, or even counter to, our core values.  I worried that my talk would be taken as just another attempt to tell physicians we aren’t good enough at self-care.

Thankfully, the feedback so far has been positive and I have not heard anyone say they felt berated or shamed.  I hope it’s because in addition to tips for self-care (eg 7 minute workout, picnic plate method of eating), I talked about how each of us can actually help change the system.  In a complex system, each individual (a ‘node’) is connected to each other individual, directly or indirectly.  So, difficult as it may be to see in medicine, everything I do affects all others, and everything each other does affects me.  This means I can be a victim and an agent at the same time, and the more I choose one or the other (when I am able to choose), I actively, if unintentionally, contribute to the self-organizing system moving in one direction or another [URL credit for image below pending].

Nodes in Complex System

My primary objective in every presentation is to inspire each member of my audience to claim their agency.  Before that can happen we must recognize that we have any agency to begin with, then shore up our resources to exercise it (self-care and relationships), and then decide where, when, and how that agency is best directed.

 

In 5 years of PowerPoint iterations, including and excluding certain concepts, I have always incorporated David Logan’s framework of stages of tribal culture.  Basically there are 5 stages, 1-3 being low functioning, and 4-5 high functioning.  The tribal mantras for the first three stages are, respectively, “Live sucks,” “My life sucks,” and “I’m great”.  Stage four tribes say, “We’re great” and in stage 5 we say, “Life’s great.”  The gap between stages 3 and 4 is wide, as evidenced by the traffic jam of people and tribes at the third stage.  In my view, the difference is mindset.  In the first three stages, most individuals’ implicit focus is on self, and subconscious mindset centers around scarcity and competition.  Victims abound in these cultures, as we focus on recognition, advancement, and getting ours.  We cross the chasm when we are able to step back and recognize how our mutual connections and how we cultivate them make us better—together—we see the network surrounding and tied to our lone-node-selves.

This week I realized that crossing the stage 3-to-4 chasm relates to two frameworks I learned recently:

The way I see it, in Logan’s tribal culture structure, one initially works toward self-actualization, essentially achieving it when fully inhabiting stage 3, “I’m great.”  But crossing to stage 4 requires self-transcendence, as described by Abraham Maslow, by recognizing a greater purpose for one’s existence than simply advancing self-interest.  In the same way, through stage 3 we live in what the Arbinger Institute describes as an ‘inward mindset,’ and we cross to stage 4 when we acquire an ‘outward mindset’, which is pretty much what it sounds like.  Essentially in stage 3 we mostly say, “I’m great, and I’m surrounded by idiots,” and in stages 4 and 5 the prevailing sentiment resembles, “We’re great, life’s great, and I’m so happy to be here, grateful for the opportunity to contribute.”

An astute colleague pointed out during my talk on Friday that we do not live strictly in one stage or mindset in serial fashion.  Depending on circumstances, context, and yes, state of mind and body (hence the importance of self-care!), we move freely and maybe often between stages, sometimes in the very same conversation!  The goals are to 1) look for role models to lead us to higher functioning stages more of the time, and 2) model for others around us to climb the tribal culture mountain with us, spending more and more mindset and energy at higher and higher stages.

The problem is the system, and we are the system.  So, onward.  Progress moves slowly and inevitably.  It will take time, energy, and collective effort.

We’ got this.