November 11:  Fierce Optimism Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

On Ozan’s Inner Circle forum today, another member posted about his admiration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  It reminded me of a favorite MLK quote, which came to mind on Saturday as I prepared for the Better Angels workshop:  “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  I have referred to this quote many times over the years, and a phrase that I often add goes something like, “Bend that arc!  Hang on it with all your might!”  Meaning the arc bends toward justice only because we make it so, by working tirelessly for it, by acting visibly in accordance with our core values, and by consistently walking the talk.

I texted my friend the morning of the workshop: “I’m 90% excited, 10% nervous…Maybe 15%…”  Then I thought about the people I know who like the idea(l) of Better Angels, but don’t want to participate.  I thought about my friends who express hopelessness at any possibility that people on opposing political sides can ever connect, that we can actually work together across our differences to get things done.  I thought about the pushback I might get, that the Better Angels mission is futile, a waste of energy and time.  I felt something akin to a tidal wave rise within me, and I texted my friend again, spontaneously, “I intend to make today a day of fierce, infectious optimism.”  At that moment I knew my goal that day was to take every example and experience of kindness, connection, empathy, openness, generosity, magnanimity, conviction, and hope, and channel it to the workshop and its participants.  Because though it was to be a skills workshop, teaching a way of doing, what we really need are all of the qualities I just listed—they are the way of being that brings the skills to bear in the most meaningful ways.

This idea marinated for a couple of hours while I pictured the venue, reviewed the workshop content, made notes about delivery.  I thought again about my friends who feel like our world is crumbling around us, that so much progress made the last century is being eroded.  I completely empathize with this perspective, and I understand how it makes us feel we have to fight, to be aggressive and confrontational, to come at the opposition full force, like a bullet train.  Do they think listening and speaking skills focused on curiosity and openness too passive and ineffective?  Does optimism, the hopefulness and confidence that things will be okay, make me lazy about the issues that matter to me?

Below are the words I texted my friend to describe what I mean by ‘Fierce Optimism’.  Normally I would not share such nascent ideas on the blog, but whatever, it’s all an experiment, who knows what better ideas may come from this early sharing?

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Fierce Optimism Is:

Urgency with Patience

Or should it read, “Urgency without Impatience”?  What I mean here is simply that most things worth doing take a very long time.  All important social movements occurred (and continue) over generations.  At times confrontation and revolution are necessary.  But they are not enough.  Consistent, slow, organic, grass roots change on the local level is what sustains consistent progress, keeps it from regressing.  The acute urgency I feel to address my deep concerns (for instance, the profound rifts in our relationships) drives me to action.  But when that action is directed at another person, I must attune.  I have to set realistic expectations for how much I can move this mountain today.  Pacing myself, practicing persistence with patience, conserves energy and prevents burnout.  It also allows me to look up every once in a while and adjust to my surroundings, adapt to subtle changes, like when someone starts to soften.  If I’m bulldozing with strong words and heavy dogma, I am more likely to plow over and through any crack in the door of someone’s mind that might have swung open freely had I taken a more gentle approach.

Strength with Flexibility

Better Angels does not seek to make everybody—anybody—a moderate.  Rather, the goal is to hold our positions firmly and with principle, and practice seeing why someone else may hold a different position with equally strong principle.  In doing so, two things often happen:  First, by challenging our own beliefs and values, we can reinforce them.  Telling stories about the experiences that led us to our core values reconnects us with their origins, grounds us in and strengthens our own personal truth.  Second, hearing others’ stories helps us broaden our perspective.  Most of the time we only see things from our own point of view—this is our default setting.  But when we share personal experiences, really learn about each other, the curtains open on a vast landscape of understanding that we may never have imagined.  So while I may still hold my goals and objectives firmly, I can more easily release the rigidity of my method, tolerate setbacks with less suffering.  Earlier this year I listened to The Warrior Within by John Little.  He describes Bruce Lee’s life philosophy, which included a metaphor of the bamboo and the oak.  Both are admirably strong, but under intense forces of nature, the oak may break while the bamboo simply bends, sometimes to the ground, but without breaking.  Both stay rooted where they are planted, but one is more resilient.  Listening with openness and curiosity is not weakness.  Allowing for nuance and the possibility that my mind may be changed in some ways, while holding steadfast to my core values, makes me calm, agile, adaptable, and, I think, more effective.

Conviction with Generosity

This is about the assumptions we make.  Too often we cast ‘the other’ in abstract as sinister, evil, less than.  We hold up the most extreme members of the opposing group as representative of a dull and dumb monolith.  We oversimplify and overgeneralize, and then approach any individual we identify as belonging to that group as an assembly line package, a completely known entity.  We think we know all about them already, even if we have never met them, just because they identify today as “Red” or “Blue.”  In so doing, we make ourselves small.  We become exactly as narrow minded and prejudiced as the folks we accuse on the other side.  How ironic.  Now more than ever, we need generosity.  In my mind this encompasses empathy, vulnerability, sincerity, humility and a willingness to allow the complete humanity of every other person, regardless of their political, religious, racial, cultural, or any other persuasion.  Conviction without generosity too easily becomes tyranny, for individuals as well as organizations and governments.

*sigh*

Well, like I said, these ideas were just born two days ago.  Have I expressed them at all coherently?  Have I shown you intuitively apprehensible paradoxes?  Can you feel the dynamic balance of agitation and peace?  Tension without anxiety?  Potential and kinetic energy?  If not, that’s okay.  I’ll keep working on it.  That’s the essential outcome of Fierce Optimism, after all—we keep working, steadily, to bend that arc.

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November 2: Reading Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

Today I share a Facebook comment series I wrote in response to a prompt from a progressive friend, in its original form.  His post made me look up and read 7 additional articles, all of which I linked in my comments.  In the end I became more aware of my own biases, and recommitted to finding common ground with people who think differently from me.  So I think reading makes me better.  What think you?

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Friend’s post:  (Cathy):  I’d be interested in your perspective on this article in terms of your work to bridge divides and create civil conversations.   [Wall Street Journal slide deck describing the economic basis of party divisions in the US—it’s a fast click through which I recommend.]

My comments:

Thanks for sharing, (Friend)! Okay, I will take the time to make a long comment thread, as this is really interesting to me. Thank you for asking the question you did–I’ll get to it eventually! First: The information presented in this slide show is consistent with what I have read before. The facts presented are real. And they are incomplete. It looks at differences between districts, which is the best way to highlight division. I think this is a direct consequence of gerrymandering, which is designed exactly to create districts that will reliably vote one way or another. And we have all seen the US map showing blue clustered around big cities and red everywhere else. AND, this report ignores the glaring truth that despite the economic divisions by district and income, a much larger proportion of the top 1% is either declared or leans Republican than Democrat (though not necessarily more conservative):  https://news.gallup.com/poll/151310/u.s.-republican-not-conservative.aspx

Gallup 1% 2011

Second: The suburbs are where Reds/Blues live amongst one another, and this report ignores them, pretty much. That said, even without gerrymandering, we Americans have sorted ourselves ideologically. Bill Bishop wrote a fascinating book that details the economic and social evolution, _The Big Sort_ (listened to the whole book a year ago, I highly recommend it): http://www.thebigsort.com/home.php

I think suburbs are where work like Better Angels has the most potential to spark civil discourse, except that people are hesitant to engage, for fear of upsetting the tenuous and silent politeness that constrains their ability to talk openly about politics. That cultural noose is hard to untie.

Dem demographic 2019

[Below are a] couple of other links that have additional demographic information that gives context and texture to the WSJ slide deck. The point of all of this is that when we I read articles that start out with nihilistic, Vader-like proclamations of “America’s political polarization is almost complete,” I see an implicit agenda to actively contribute to that polarization for the good of the publisher. Brené Brown reminds us to beware of those who tell us things are absolute, either/or. Reality is almost never this dichotomous, and whenever we hear it is, we should look for who benefits from us thinking it is. Economic demographics of Democrats: https://www.debt.org/…/economic-demographics-democrats/

Economic demographics of Republicans: https://www.debt.org/…/economic-demographics-democrats/

Okay finally, to answer your question, on my “perspective on this article in terms of (my) work to bridge divides and create civil conversations”: My favorite visual is this table from the first article I linked to. In some ways we are ‘almost completely’ divided, as the Vader article posits. In other ways, we are not. I think of the surveys showing a majority of Americans being in favor of background checks for gun ownership, in agreement that abortion is generally not something we want happening all the time. I think of all of the conversations I have with pretty much any other human, and how we are all 90% more alike than different. But this article and 90% of the articles we see highlight the other 10% of differences, and worse, the most vehement and violent expressions of those differences. So my perspective on this article is that it contributes significantly, if not blatantly, to the division it reports. And it does not serve us in any way. And, I hope I would have the same response if it were published by the New York Times. 😉

top 1% demographics 2011

HANG ON. I just saw that this favorite article I cited is from 2011. I have found a couple of more recent ones; will review and continue the thread….

vox welthy dems 2016

Okay, here is an article from 2016 by a poli-sci expert who, [Bill Bishop-style], explains well the progressive evolution of the top 4%. Very interesting:  https://www.vox.com/…/6/3/11843780/democrats-wealthy-party

And hey, here is one from Forbes this year, which quotes the author of the Vox article, highlighting how a sizable number of Republicans actually align ideologically with Democratic policies:

“The fact that lower-income Republicans, largely known as the ‘basket of deplorables,’ support more social spending and taxing the rich was a key takeaway from this year’s report, says Lee Drutman, senior fellow on the political reform program at New America, a Washington D.C.-based think tank… ‘It is pretty striking that about a fifth of Republicans had views closer to the median Democrat than their own party,’ he says. ‘A lot of them actually want a sizeable social welfare state. It’s a little bit of a puzzle why they don’t vote for the Democratic Party, other than long-standing cultural ties maybe and other ballot issues. What we have here is just one of the two parties stands out to have a bunch of its supporters in opposition to some of the party’s economic platforms but still gives them their vote.’” https://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2019/06/24/how-democrats-and-republicans-differ-on-matters-of-wealth–equality/#13e06ab8702f

More from the Forbes article:

“But when looked at closer, a plurality of voters (72%) across the spectrum said the government should provide tax credits for low-income workers. Some 60% are in favor of raising the minimum wage, and 58% were in favor of raising taxes for those families earning over $200,000 a year.

“Across party lines, Democrats were the ones who were most interested in a higher tax burden for the wealthy, though it is unclear if they considered themselves to be part of the income group that would be hit with higher taxation in a more progressive tax structure.

“An overwhelming majority (79%) of Democrats earning under $40,000 a year wanted to tax the rich more. Democratic Party voters earning over $80,000 were 83% on board with taxing higher incomes at higher rates. For Republicans earning under $40,000, 45% were in favor of taxing the rich. Republicans who earned over $80,000 didn’t like the idea. Only 23% were in favor.”

[In conclusion:]  Complexity does not make for headlines, sadly, and we should take this into account when we read and share. Thanks for posting on my page and asking the question, [Friend], you have made me think and thus made me better! 😀

Better Angels:  Why I Have Committed

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Friends, what is your WHY?  Mine is to cultivate the best relationships between all people, (here comes my spiel [I prefer to call it a mantra—winking emoji]), “because our relationships kill us or save us, and relationships themselves live and die by communication.”

How are you affected by the current political climate?  Are you separated from friends?  Do you feel restricted in your conversations?  Do you self-edit more than before?  Or are you emboldened to speak your mind, finally freed from the social muzzles of more repressed times?  How have politics in the 21st Century affected your relationships?

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I first learned of Better Angels when I read David Blankenhorn’s article, “The 7 Habits of Highly Depolarizing People,” written before the 2016 election.  I was intrigued by the organization but could not figure out how to get involved.  Last year I asked my Facebook friends which charity they thought I should fundraise for—I support so many causes in theory, but could not decide where to focus my efforts.  One insightful friend suggested Better Angels.  I did not end up fundraising for anyone, but I started following Angels on Facebook and signed up for the newsletters.  This May I participated in a skills workshop and wrote about it.  The objective in these workshops is for attendees to learn and practice listening and speaking skills, to facilitate mutual understanding and connection between liberals (Blues) and conservatives (Reds).  The workshops are brilliantly structured to make engagement safe and productive.  I decided I wanted to be part of this solution.

In August I attended my second workshop, “Depolarizing from Within,” aimed at helping us help our own ‘side’ combat the 4 Horsemen of Polarization that we unleash on the other side:  Stereoptyping, Dismissing, Ridiculing, and Contempt.  I took notes on the moderator’s methods this time, as I had committed to training to become a moderator.  Like in teaching, he had to set clear expectations and ground rules.  He had to control the session and politely but firmly interrupt people’s monologues and keep us on task.  This was harder than I expected—many of us wanted to depolarize from the other side rather than our own—self-scrutiny and –regulation is hard.  Going against group think and calling out our peers feels scary and vulnerable.  But we can do it if we have the skills and motivation.  It is essential if we want to reconnect with our loved ones ‘on the other side.’

I read the moderator training materials and watched the videos over the summer.  When I found myself feeling triggered watching a Red/Blue workshop online, I wondered if I’m really up for facilitating such an event.  Moderators, after all, must exude sincere neutrality and make all attendees feel welcome.  We are the leaders in the room; we set the tone.  For the sake of the work, we cannot afford to get emotionally agitated by anything any attendee says.  That means not only in our words, but our body language, facial expressions—people must feel us being professional at all times.  So to test myself, I registered for the next Red/Blue workshop in my area as a participant.

The event was almost cancelled because not enough Reds had registered.  Chicago and Evanston are very Blue cities, and I’m learning how ostracized and unwelcome my Red peers feel among us progressives.  So I’m so grateful for Red folks who came at our organizer’s behest—her friends who did it as a favor to her.  More than once during the morning, we heard how apprehensive some of them felt, not knowing what to expect, and not used to feeling free to express their views.  This makes me so sad, and I feel strongly that we Blues have to own our part in it.  Regardless of how badly we feel our conservative counterparts anywhere behave, it does not excuse our own ad hominem.

About a week before the workshop, we found out Van Jones and his crew would come to film the whole thing and then interview some of us afterward.  With very mixed feelings, I agreed to wear a microphone and appear on camera.  He told us at the beginning that of the 4 hour event, 4 minutes would be aired.  So we could relax.

Not only was I relaxed; I felt positively uplifted and encouraged.  Throughout another set of wisely structured exercises, Red and Blues explored not only our strengths, but our flaws—both ideological and behavioral.  The stage was set for safe self-reflection, and the vulnerability required to practice it.  How often in your conversations, even with people you love, do you feel safe to acknowledge the weaknesses of your ‘side’ and where your group could act better, without someone pouncing on you?  Has it been so long that it doesn’t even occur to you to consider it?  At the end I exchanged contact information with two Reds and another Blue, and I really hope we can continue the conversation.  I will invite them to the skills workshop I will co-moderate next month, my first attempt.

The Better Angels segment aired on the Van Jones Show last night.  It’s about 9 minutes.  I thought the show did an excellent job of highlighting the objective of the organization, and showing perspectives from both sides, as well as an observer, whose notes are worth pausing on and reading, at about 7 minutes.  Please take a look and share your reactions (civilly) in the comments.

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In preparation for Thanksgiving, Better Angels is holding skills workshops across the country in the next weeks.  Find one near you and bring a friend or loved one!  And check out the blog and podcast to read and hear civil, respectful, even friendly Red and Blue perspectives and discourse on issues like gun control and education.

We have so much work to do, my friends.  It feels exhausting and discouraging at times, but not during Better Angels events.  Here the goals and vibe are openness, curiosity, learning, understanding, and above all, connection.  It’s the perfect place for me and my WHY.  So I’m going to stay a while.  I’ got something to contribute here.

 

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.

Training My Better Angels

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First, Happy Mother’s Day to all!

So friends, what do the Better Angels of your nature feel like?  What do they do, how do they speak and act, especially when encountering those with opposing political views to yours?

A New Tribe

Yesterday I attended a skills workshop run by Better Angels, an organization I have admired for a while.  Their stated mission:

Better Angels is a citizens’ organization uniting red and blue Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America

  • We try to understand the other side’s point of view, even if we don’t agree with it
  • We engage those we disagree with, looking for common ground and ways to work together
  • We support principles that bring us together rather than divide us

On the garden level of a Lutheran church on a drizzly afternoon, we sat quietly in a big circle of folding chairs.  I noticed one black woman, one other Asian woman, and everybody else was white.  Most of us were at least Gen Xers; I estimated maybe one third were Baby Boomers.  It seemed about equal numbers of men and women.  Among the 30 or so participants, 6 of us identified as ‘red-leaning.’  The moderators set a clear and firm expectation that we all respect one another, and especially attended to those in the political minority.  As the facilitator explained the objectives and skills, people listened attentively.  Expressions and postures demonstrated eager engagement.  A sincere and almost sad, desperate longing for bipartisan connection permeated the air.

We were all there to practice listening skills to help one another feel heard.  Speaking skills would also be taught, to facilitate ourselves being heard by our counterparts.  Though I felt confident in these skills already, I looked forward to strengthening them in a new group setting.  When I saw we would do role plays I got super excited!  The method, designed by family therapist Bill Doherty, was brilliant—we paired with a same-color partner, and took turns playing blue and red, challenging ourselves to resist judgment, stay open, tune in to our own and each other’s whole presence, and imagine the minds of ‘the other side,’ inviting all of our whole selves to connect.  The central objective was to create an atmosphere of openness, non-judgment, and balanced, mutual engagement.

The Spark

Even before the activities started I thought, “I want to learn how to lead this.  I want to participate, to contribute in a bigger way.”  So when they invited us to stay afterward if we were interested in moderator training, I practically leapt out of my seat.  Turns out you have to apply—no problem—and good, they have standards, yay!  Once accepted, you complete about 15 hours of online training and a Zoom call with established moderators.  Then you commit to moderating three workshops in the coming year.  Woo hoooooooooo!  There are only 8 moderators in all of Illinois, all from north of I-80.  Better Angels holds firm a 50/50 ratio between red and blue volunteers, and disproportionally more blue folks apply, so I may have ‘competition.’  That’s okay—we’re truly all on the same team here!

Ready, Set, Wait–I’ Got This.

When I got home and opened the application, I hesitated a moment.  They seek, first and foremost, volunteers experienced in group facilitation.  Yikes, I don’t have that, I thought.  And yet I felt intrinsically comfortable in that group setting, imagining myself co-leading with relaxed confidence and grace.  Huh, interesting.  I own this communication skill set, as well as the ability to teach it—I feel eminently qualified for this role.  Where did I get that?

Part of the application required a condensed resume, so I pulled up my CV.  Maybe I’ll find something in here to make the case that despite my lack of group facilitation experience, I’m still qualified, I hoped.  I laughed out loud when I realized, I have been facilitating groups for ten years now—every month with my medical students, discussing topics like professionalism, medical errors, burnout, difficult patients, and interacting with industry, among others.  I’ve also conducted workshops teaching motivational interviewing, the quintessential skill set in open and honest dialogue!  In all of these settings it’s my job to make the environment safe for candid discussion, to model non-judgment and open, honest questions.  I lead role plays in which people take on both patient and provider roles to practice empathy for their counterparts.  I have written on this blog multiple times about how much I learn every time I meet with these groups.  No wonder I felt so at ease in the workshop yesterday, I’ve been doing this—training my and others’ Better Angels—for a decade already, and I did not even realize it.  How cosmic.

So my application is submitted!  I should hear in 15 days.

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Friends, would you consider joining this group?  What are you curious about?  What makes you hesitate?  Who in your circles would be great at this work, and will you share this information with them?

Thank you for reading, and wish me luck!

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.