Applying the Wisdom of Atticus Finch

Atticus_and_Tom_Robinson_in_court

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

–Atticus Finch

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

 

How do you practice and achieve empathy?  How do you notice others doing it?

It’s been on my mind a lot these last two weeks.  Current American politics resembles an interminable abscess, oozing ever more copious and putrid gobs of pus, from ever more unforeseen tracts of deep, diseased tissue.  How can we find any Healing Connection in the midst of all this?

Here’s my answer:  Role play and storytelling.

Role Playing Game Males Lego Duplo Play Build

 

Role Play for the Good

I used to hate role play, and now I jump at any chance to try it!  It all changed through a 7 week teaching workshop I did during my chief resident year, and I am forever grateful for the experience.  Now I regularly use role play to teach motivational interviewing, or MI, to medical students and residents.  Put simply, MI is a counseling technique that focuses on patient autonomy, and aims to reinforce intrinsic motivation for change.  My teaching method has evolved over time, due to my own unexpected experience of ‘climbing into the skin’ of others.

In the beginning I used to play the patient, letting students take turns practicing their MI skills on me.  After a couple of sessions I realized that even though I was pretending, I really felt like the students were earnestly trying to help me change my health habits, or making me feel bad about myself, depending on their proficiency.  So to give them the benefit of this perspective, I had them take turns playing both patient and physician.  The feedback revealed a richer, more insightful experience for all.

In 2015 I attended the Active Lives conference, where my technique was further enlightened.  I got to role play four times with a partner: first as patient, then physician, doing it the ‘wrong’ way (directive, authoritative, confrontational), and again in both roles doing it the ‘right’ way (collaborative, empathetic, nonjudgmental).  I felt the immediate contrast of the four roles emotionally and viscerally.  When all I heard from the doctor was, “Yes, I know you’re busy, but you have to find time to exercise,” and “Why don’t you do this…” and, “You should… You need to… If you don’t, then…” I felt absolutely no impetus to take any of this advice.  But questions like, “How important is it to you to…  How confident are you to… What would it take…what would need to happen in order for you to…” and, “What would life be like if…” invited me to explore possibilities, helped me to imagine and create my own future.  As an authoritative physician, I felt frustrated at my patient’s resistance to my evidence-based and well-intentioned advice.  By contrast, as a collaborative doctor, I feel freed to embark on an improvisational Yes, And adventure to reveal each patient’s personal path to healthier habits.  Now I offer my students the opportunity to experience all four roles.

I remembered this insight evolution last week when I came across a 1970 video of Jane Elliott’s classroom racism experiment.  She divides the class by eye color, asserts that blue-eyed children are better than brown-eyed children on one day, then reverses the premise the next.  While she makes privilege assignments that likely would not fly today, she also debriefs with the kids, helping them identify their assumptions, feelings, actions and reactions—much more authentically and directly than I think we are willing to do today.  She does it all without judging or shaming, pointing out biases and encouraging her students to examine them for themselves.  I admire her for pioneering this exercise, and I bet it affected her students in profound and lasting ways.

storytelling

 

The Importance of Story

Clearly, we cannot possibly depend on such academic practices to develop everyday empathy.  Luckily we now have infinitely easier access to one another’s stories than ever before, which is the next best thing.   Lately I feel a keen new appreciation of the importance of storytelling for conveying experience and stimulating mutual understanding.  Obligingly, the universe (read Facebook) has provided me with numerous testimonies of my fellow humans’ experiences and conditions, and this week they touch me even more acutely.  Here are some of them:

  • Former white supremacists talk about the importance of upholding others’ humanity, even as we denounce their beliefs.
  • A black writer recounts multiple instances of racism over her lifetime, inviting her white high school classmate to imagine and consider how they exemplify his white male privilege.
  • The head of neurosurgery at the Mayo Clinic in Florida tells his story of illegal, then legal immigration, and a subsequent life dream realized.
  • Neil DeGrasse Tyson shares stories of genitals on fire, educators’ responsibility to the electorate, pressure from his black classmate to contribute to ‘the black cause,’ realizing that he is doing just that, and why he wants to be buried instead of cremated (he has changed my mind, by the way).
  • David Duke’s godson credits the college friends who welcomed him despite his pedigree, with helping him defy and shed it.

 

What’s the Point?

The overarching goal here is to intentionally thwart the abstraction and dehumanization of people who are different from ourselves.  Stepping into another person’s shoes, ‘climbing into (their) skin,’ imagining how they feel, and actually feeling it—this is the best protection against bias, prejudice, and discrimination.  Empathy forms the sticky webs of connection that stymie the hymenoptera of hatred mid-flight, or catch us in the face and remind us to look where we’re going.  Where do we want our thoughts, words, actions, and relationships to take us?

I imagine a world of colorfully flawed humans, who acknowledge our biases openly and honestly; who recognize the risks that those biases carry; who accept ourselves, warts on soles and souls and all; who commit to a lifetime of extending that acceptance to one another; and who understand that it is our relationships, all of them, that kill us or save us.

So let’s play and tell—and feel and listen.  Really,  it’ll be good for all of us.

 

Only Love Can Win

Lily Pad Lake trail weather coming

Holy hell, what a week.  How are you feeling?  Most people I know express some combination of shock, resignation, rage, disbelief, hopelessness, gloom, and resentment.  I’m trying hard to practice Radical Acceptance.  It’s similar to the second arrow principle, in that at the very least, it lessens my own suffering from our collective circumstance.  But more than that, it allows me to focus more on what I will do, than seethe around my negative reactions.

I’m thinking of the Twitter account named Yes, You’re Racist.  Apparently the owner wants to identify the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, to publicly shame them and possibly get them fired from work. At least one person has lost his job based on a photo posted to the account.  What do you think about this?  I admit, my first reaction was positive.  Yes, call them out, make them accountable, I thought.  But then I wonder what good will this do?  Will the guy who got fired from the hot dog place suddenly think it was morally wrong to attend the march?  Or will he interpret his employer’s action as further proof that the liberal left conspires to restrict free speech and assembly, thereby deepening his animosity toward anyone who opposes his views from the left?  Will it open any space in his mind to consider why white supremacy is wrong, or help him acquire empathy or compassion toward any marginalized group?  Or won’t it just drive his racist expressions underground?  Doesn’t public shaming like this run the risk of re-closeting these people, so their grievances foment in the dark, only to be released again under pressure, in some act of overt violence?

I think about the fights between marchers and anti-protestors—between those who wish to incite violence, and those who succumb to the provocation.  To be clear, the Neo-Nazi, white supremacist marchers who descended on Charlottesville represent a vile and unacceptable set of ideas.  They are the villains.  And, fighting violence with violence is never a good solution.

So, we ask, what can we do?  How do we respond?  Maybe it’s because I’m on vacation this week, communing with nature in the mountains and watching the annual Perseid meteor shower from 10,000 feet, on a clear, literally stellar night, surrounded and awed by our millennia-old universe.  It keeps me from stalking Facebook quite so many hours a day, and gives good perspective.  I feel somehow more capable of saying, This is how things are.  It sucks.  It’s wrong.  And I can still make a difference.

In the end, I believe Only Love Can Win.  Blaming, shaming, belittling, and otherwise demeaning people for certain beliefs, actions, or associations—hating them—does not help.  What does help is offering compassion and empathy, and listening to understand.  I know I have said and written it many times, and I know many will argue that now is not the time to ‘get soft.’  But believe me, practicing love in the face of hate is anything but soft.  Let me share some resources that illustrate this, and that hold me up.  This is a very long post, and I hope you will stick with me ‘til the end.

Ai

Agape Love

Maria Popova, curator of the illuminating blog Brain Pickings, inspires me with her summary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1958 essay “An Experiment in Love.”  I refer to this article often since January 20.  Dr. King explores six tenets of nonviolent resistance (below).  It reminds me that while I vehemently oppose bigotry, racism, sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, and fascism, I can do it with a peaceful heart, full of love for humanity, and with faith that even my small contribution of said love can make a difference.  Here are the highlights of her piece, MLK’s words quoted:

  1. Nonviolent resistance is not passive cowardice. “For while the nonviolent resister is passive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive toward his opponent, his mind and his emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade his opponent that he is wrong. The method is passive physically but strongly active spiritually. It is not passive non-resistance to evil, it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.”
  2. The goal is connection. “Nonviolence … does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that these are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.”
  3. Separate the people from problem (as William Ury et al would say). “The attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil. It is the evil that the nonviolent resister seeks to defeat, not the persons victimized by the evil… [Regarding racial injustice:] We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust.”
  4. Be prepared to pay the cost. “The nonviolent resister is willing to accept violence if necessary, but never to inflict it. He does not seek to dodge jail.”
  5. Manage thyself. Do not allow yourself to descend to the depths of hate while you fight hate itself.  Cultivate love instead.  “The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love…To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.  This is Agape love…  Agape means understanding, redeeming good will for all men. It is an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative… Another basic point about agape is that it springs from the need of the other person… The Negro must love the white man, because the white man needs his love to remove his tensions, insecurities, and fears… Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action… Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community… It is a willingness to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven to restore community.”
  6. Hope.  “Nonviolent resistance … is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Consequently, the believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future. This faith is another reason why the nonviolent resister can accept suffering without retaliation. For he knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship.”

moths on poop

10 Ways to Fight Hate

One of the first pieces I read after the events on Saturday was this article from the Southern Poverty Law Center, listing ten ways to fight hate.  So while I carry that peaceful heart full of Agape love, these are the concrete things I can do right now (highlights quoted):

“The good news is, all over the country people are fighting hate, standing up to promote tolerance and inclusion. More often than not, when hate flares up, good people rise up against it — often in greater numbers and with stronger voices.”

  1. Act
  2. Join Forces
  3. Support the Victims
  4. Speak Up

“Do not debate hate group members in conflict-driven forums. Instead, speak up in ways that draw attention away from hate, toward unity.

“Goodness has a First Amendment right, too. We urge you to denounce hate groups and hate crimes and to spread the truth about hate’s threat to a pluralistic society. An informed and unified community is the best defense against hate.

“You can spread tolerance through social media and websites, church bulletins, door-to-door fliers, letters to the editor, and print advertisements. Hate shrivels under strong light. Beneath their neo-Nazi exteriors, hatemongers are cowards and are surprisingly subject to public pressure and ostracism.

  1. Educate Yourself

“Most hate crimes…are not committed by members of hate groups; the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates fewer than 5 percent. Many hate crimes are committed by young males acting alone or in small groups, often for thrills. While these perpetrators may act independently, they are sometimes influenced by the dehumanizing rhetoric and propaganda of hate groups.”

  1. Create An Alternative

“Do not attend a hate rally. As much as you might like to physically show your opposition to hate, confrontations serve only the perpetrators. They also burden law enforcement with protecting hatemongers from otherwise law-abiding citizens. If an event featuring a hate group, avowed separatist or extremist is coming to your college campus, hold a unity rally on a different part of campus. Invite campus clubs, sororities, fraternities and athletic organizations to support your efforts.

“Every act of hatred should be met with an act of love and unity. Many communities facing a hate group rally have held alternative events at the same hour, some distance away, emphasizing strength in community and diversity. They have included forums, parades, and unity fairs featuring speakers, food, music, exhibits, and entertainment. These events give people a safe outlet for the frustration and anger they want to vent. As a woman at a Spokane, Washington, human rights rally put it, “Being passive is something I don’t want to do. I need to make some kind of commitment to human rights.”

  1. Pressure Leaders

Form relationships with community leaders before a hate incident occurs.

Encourage leaders to name the problem.

Push leaders when they show bias or fail to act. [And do it respectfully—ad hominem never helps.]

  1. Stay Engaged
  2. Teach Acceptance

“Bias is learned in childhood. By age 3, children can be aware of racial differences and may have the perception that ‘white’ is desirable. By age 12, they can hold stereotypes about ethnic, racial, and religious groups, or LGBT people. Because stereotypes underlie hate, and because almost half of all hate crimes are committed by young men under 20, tolerance education is critical.”

  1. Dig Deeper

“Look inside yourself for biases and stereotypes.

“We all grow up with prejudices. Acknowledging them — and working through them — can be a scary and difficult process. It’s also one of the most important steps toward breaking down the walls of silence that allow intolerance to grow. Luckily, we all possess the power to overcome our ignorance and fear, and to influence our children, peers, and communities.”

VICE screenshot

Breathe Deep, Stay on the Path, and Engage

How would you confront a white supremacist in person, face to face?  Would you share a meal with him/her?  I saw this video clip on Facebook, of a young Chinese-American man, Eddie Huang, sitting down to dinner with Jared Taylor, an older, white nationalist man, and founder of American Renaissance, to discuss Taylor’s perspective.  The American Renaissance site espouses genetic differences in intelligence and the propensity to commit crimes between races, among other things.  Taylor states that historically, Europeans have “killed more people per capita” than any other group, and attributes this to them being “more technologically advanced.”  He voted for 45 because his policies would “slow the dispossession of whites in America.”  He says he wants to keep whites a majority in the United States, or else they “no longer control our own destiny.”

I imagined myself in Eddie’s shoes, and I could not fathom how I could stomach this conversation while eating.  Actually I think he stops, while Taylor continues to eat—Chinese food.  I don’t know anything about Eddie Huang other than what I see in this video, and I admire him.  He sits down and engages respectfully, thoughtfully, and firmly, with a person who basically thinks he does not deserve to be an American.  Could you do that?  I’m not sure I could.  And what would the world be like if we all trained to do exactly this?

Thank you for reading to the end.  My point here is that we can oppose and resist more effectively than with rage, shame, and violence.  I know I won’t make everybody put down their clubs and fists with my small words, but this is where I stand, and I commit to speaking my stance as much and as loudly as possible.  I pledge to do my best always to profess what I am for, more than what I am against.  I commit to a practice of Agape love, Radical Acceptance, Mindfulness, and Peaceful, Respectful Activism.  I would love your company on this journey.

 

Resistors In Series

Estes 2011

As nerd stuff goes, biology has always been more my speed than physics.  When my group in AP bio got to dissect a fresh frozen elk heart instead of a preserved sheep heart, I was positively overjoyed.  I remember so clearly the size (almost as big as my head) and weight of it, the texture of the muscle.  I can still see the valves, the heartstrings, and coagulated blood in the right and left atria.  So it kind of surprised me when I thought of a physics metaphor for our politics today.  I, the daughter of a PhD in applied mechanics, earned the lowest grade of my college career in first quarter physics.

Like many science nerd adolescents of the 80’s, I looked forward to new episodes of “MacGyver” every week.  The handsome, mullet-sporting Richard Dean Anderson always jerry-rigged his way out of life-threatening situations using everyday chemistry and such.  How fun that my kids can now enjoy the same drama with the CBS “MacGyver” reboot, starring Lucas Till.  We bond over TV, my kids and I.

macgyver white board

In the “Chisel” episode, Mac and his team find themselves barricaded inside a US Embassy, under attack by terrorists.  On a white board, he calculates how many inches of paper to place in front of the windows to stop incoming machine gun bullets—it’s 8 in this case.  [As an aside, the Mythbusters showed that paper is a plausible form of body armor.]  This got me thinking: one sheet of paper, so thin and flimsy, is easily shredded.  But layered in redundance, it can stop a barrage of deadly bullets.  It feels a lot like our national political activism since last November.

Women, scientists, environmentalists, educators, people of color, the LGBTQ community, Native Americans, writers, actors, physicians, patients, religious groups, law enforcement, legislators, and the press—We have all found our legs and our voices; we have stood and proclaimed not only our opposition to 45, but our commitment to our core values of inclusion, equality, respect for the planet, and respect for one another.  I submit that we are resistors in series.

resistors in seriesYou may recall from physics class that when resistors are placed end to end in an electrical circuit, their total resistance is the sum of their individual impedance units.  As the current passes through one resistor, it encounters the next one, and the next, one after another, slowing its progress.  I like to see today’s activist groups in this way, each contributing several layers to the dense, thick paper barricade at the windows of democracy as we know it, defending it against attack.  And the more we can stand united, supporting one another, the stronger we will be.  Could our resistance even be exponential, rather than simply additive?

Tyrants and authoritarians divide to conquer–they like resistors in parallel, where the total impedance is actually a fraction of each individual unit’s resistance.  By pitting each group against every other, a despot can trample them each/all with ease, and they might never see it coming—the same voltage directed across multiple, isolated resistors transforms them into conductors of the oppressor’s will.resistors in parallel

Perhaps this was our orientation prior to the last election.  We each had our pet causes, for which we felt varying degrees of personal activism.  We saw ourselves as detached, benignly unconnected.  But as we have witnessed a progressive threat marching against everything that we care about, a shared, collective threat, a new current has sparked.  Perhaps this mutual unease has reorganized us to connect in succession, to close ranks.

I was reminded of this idea when I read this piece by Charles M. Blow in the New York Times.  He posits that “America regularly experiences bouts of regression, but fortunately, it is in those regressive periods that some of our greatest movements and greatest voices… found their footing.”  Then I came across another article from The Atlantic, suggesting that even our legislators may be reorienting themselves into more serial, additive connectedness:

In hindsight, the Democrats’ decision to not allow partisanship to subsume collegiality or compassion, to cheer McCain along with their Republican colleagues, to embrace a friend even as he cast a decisive vote to move forward with a bill they despised, no longer seems naive. “I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us,” McCain had said in his speech.  

Had Democrats met that vote by attacking McCain, he might not have voted no [on the Senate’s ‘skinny repeal’ of the Affordable Care Act] last night. He might not have been so immune to the entreaties of his colleagues. He might not have resisted the arm-twisting of the president who never spent a day in public service before winning an election, who mocked him so cruelly two years ago. He might have decided against casting a vote to derail his own party’s seven-year crusade to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, a goal he still endorses.

I know my analogy vastly oversimplifies our political landscape.  Still, it comforts me.  I feel particularly focused on healthcare today, and I like to think that even if healthcare is not someone else’s chief concern, she will stand up with me when our healthcare system is under attack, just like I will rise with her in defense of our natural treasures, etc.  We stand, shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand, to resist and defend.  This vision of unity and cohesion is my hope and aspiration, not just now, but for generations to come.

Support for the Inner Work

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Things were a little crazy this week.  I have an idea for a post and still have not sat down to write it out.  But I want to share something that came out on my Facebook page (of course) tonight.  One of the reasons I love writing is that insights pop out when you least expect them.  Writing exchanged with others is even better, because those insights are then shared, and their meaning amplifies.

I posted this article from the Washington Post yesterday: “Nearly half of liberals don’t even like to be around Trump supporters.”  It’s a summary of a recent Pew Research Center survey, which finds that 47% of liberal Democrats “say that if a friend supported Trump, it would actually put a strain on their friendship.”  It posits, among other things, that liberals are less tolerant of dissenting ideas because they are clustered in urban areas, lending to louder echo chambers.  By contrast, only 13% of Republicans answered that “a friend’s support of Hillary Clinton would strain their friendship.”

From the survey report:…Nearly nine months after the election, most people (59%) say it is ‘stressful and frustrating’ to talk about politics with people who have a different opinion of Trump than they do; just 35% find such conversations ‘interesting and informative.'”

I consider myself a socially heavily left-leaning, fiscally centrist Independent, but I identify more with liberals than conservatives, by a large margin.  This article made me sad, that my ‘tribe’ shows itself to be much more intolerant and judgmental than I would like.

I posted this comment along with the article:

Ooohh, so much data here, so much potential for blame, and also for self-exploration. Humbling, no question.
“Be extra kind with your comments on this one please, friends. No need to reopen barely scabbed wounds. I mean for my page to be a safe place for all of us to engage. We are all in it together, and the sooner we *all* figure out how to deal with 45 and one another, the better we will all be.
“Also, I’m bummed that Asians are always left out of the data set.”

I got some comments from my liberal friends about how hard it is to talk to Trump supporters, so much so that they avoid talking politics with those friends altogether.  But one friend exemplified my aspiration for all of us.  She wrote:

“… I recently had dinner with a very close friend who voted for Trump. Typically I think I’m a really good listener, listening with curiosity and a desire to raise the conversation and all involved to a higher level. However, when our conversation turned to politics I found myself cutting her off, getting defensive and bordering on being critical of her. I was horrified by my own behavior. I think this article hits on it – the support or opposition of Trump feels like less of a political stance and more of a statement of a person’s values and morals. I don’t think that’s necessarily true- I think a large population of Trump voters (my friend included) were actually voting against Washington more than for Trump. While I can’t get behind Trump I can get behind a vote to change the system. I wonder what might happen if more of us looked for what we can stand behind together?! Thank you for continuing to be a voice for this movement!”

Exactly!  Immediately I felt connected to my friend in a higher calling, and a shared struggle.  I replied:

“(My dear friend), I derive so much of my strength and curiosity from you. How many of us can own up publicly about our own flaws and failures, like you did here? And I know you know I use the word failure in the most empathetic and loving, mutually understanding way. I think that is the first step–complete humility and openness to our own imperfection. It’s so fucking hard. And I’m so lucky to have friends like you, (these four other dear friends), and others… I know now, better late than never, that we cannot do this work without unwaveringly reliable support, no matter how motivated we are.  And for those of us who are already well-supported, I think it’s our responsibility to look outward and support others. You never know when or where someone may be standing on the edge of openness, and when your small gesture of encouragement may nudge them on. Thank you for your loving support, my soul sister!”

It really is true, we cannot dig deep and bring out our best selves by ourselves.  We are meant to hold one another up and accountable, to bring out the best in each other.  It breaks my heart when I interview patients, and learn how sparse and frail their emotional support networks are.  There is no stereotype for this scenario, it can happen to the best of us.  Past experiences, circumstances, timing, life events—they can all combine to undermine our relationships, thereby weakening our capacity for self-awareness and exploration.  So we fall back on default modes of defensiveness, righteousness, denial, and blame.  Whether it’s quitting smoking, sticking to a healthy eating plan, or elevating our political discourse, we are truly stronger together.

I share this tonight because I so admire my friend for owning her whole self.  I am so grateful to her for sharing her imperfections and vulnerability with humility and hopefulness.  She gives me strength to keep going, despite how fucking hard it is.  And I hope I can do the same for many, many others.

Innocence, Indignation, and Idealism:  An Optimist’s Reconciliation

I took my daughter to see “Wonder Woman” last weekend.  I highly recommend it—such a strong, complex, and inspiring portrayal of humanity at its best and worst, with a hopeful ending.

Today I’m (somewhat) inspired in parallel by (some) politicians, three Republican senators in particular, calling for transparency in drafting healthcare reform.  I hereby present my attempt to integrate that exquisite Wonder Woman Experience with my current political outlook.

***WARNING*** THIS POST MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NOT SEEN THE MOVIE.

Innocence

Diana of Themyscira grows up believing in the innate goodness of humans.  The Amazons are educated, independent, strong, and proud, and also collaborative, compassionate, kind, and sensitive.  When Diana learns of the horrific war waged by mankind outside of her paradise home, she relates it to the story of Ares, the God of War, who corrupts the hearts of men to commit acts of hatred upon one another.  So, naturally, she sets out to kill Ares and fix it.

We journey with Diana through challenge and triumph, as she learns that, of course, it’s not that simple.  She kills the man she thought was Ares, and nothing changes, the war rages on.  She must reconcile the possibility that the heart of mankind is not actually pure goodness.  Even without an insidiously corrupting God of War, humans are prone to their own malignant beliefs and actions.  Her innocence is pierced.

In the summer of 2009 or 2010, my best friend from college and his wife came to visit.  He, a molecular biology and political science double major and emergency medicine physician, and she, a worldly intellectual and future legal counsel for a major media outlet, were the first to burst my innocent political bubble.  For some reason, likely due to the tremendous inspiration of Barack Obama, I had gone from thinking all politicians were liars and performance artists, to seeing them as genuine public servants, working to advance their authentic ideas of how society functions better for all citizens.  I know, La-La Land!  My friends described an alternative, more realistic path to politics: Person succeeds at business, rubs elbows with regulators and influences them (with money or otherwise) to facilitate his/her business success.  Said person then realizes s/he could actually become one of those regulators and make a more permanent positive impact on these business interests, and so runs for office.  I still remember how deflated I felt, shoulders slumped, spine rounded, at this sudden and stark realization.

Indignation

As with everything, I’m sure political reality lies somewhere in the messy middle between pure altruism and blatant, self-serving avarice.  But these days, for someone who loved Obama and almost everything he stood for, it’s hard not to see the whole of our current political landscape as the latter.  I think, Really, WTF?  Can those in power really see nothing valid whatsoever in anything accomplished the past 8 years?  Do they really think that see-saw policy-making, each administration reversing everything from the previous one, replacing wise, experienced public servants with ignorant neophytes (my opinion), is the best way to govern?  OMFG, you have got to be kidding me.  I seethe.  But what can I do?

Ares reveals himself, and taunts Diana in her most vulnerable moment with his arrogant disdain for man’s weakness and corruptibility.  He also reveals that she is, in fact, the only one who can vanquish him—only a god can kill another god.  Diana, daughter of Zeus himself, possesses the power to Kick. His. Ass.  Yet he dismisses her out of hand, oblivious to her inner strength of conviction and compassion (I know, so much to expound on here, maybe in another post!).  Nope.  Righteous indignation rises.  She digs deep, finds that core courage, and obliterates him.  Fist pump.  He never saw it coming.

Idealism

In the end, Diana realizes that humans are a paradox: a big jumble of contradictions, perpetrators of horrific rage and destruction, and also fully worthy of love, forgiveness, and compassion.  She somehow finds peace in this enigma, loving the best of humanity and vowing to protect us against our worst selves, helping us to become better.

This resonates with the idealist in me.  This is how she helps us, and how we can help ourselves.

How Can We Help?

We can choose to fight against one another, and thereby focus on what we hate (about ourselves).

Or, we can choose to seek the good in one another, and focus on what we love— even better, focus on love itself.  We all want access to healthcare, and to be free from bankrupting medical expenses.  Everybody wants to be safe from gun violence.  We all want an efficient government that sets reasonable regulations, protects citizens’ constitutional rights, and spends money wisely and with accountability.  We all want to feel protected and free, loved and free to love.

The messy middle is the how.  That is where we negotiate.  That is also where the magic happens, as Brené Brown says, and that is where we must go, where we must persist.  We can bring our best selves to meet others’ best, in mutual respect.  It can be high risk, so we can enter slowly, strategically, with realistic expectations and a few trusted friends.

To this end, I will continue to seek out and hold up elected officials who call for more thoughtful political processes.  My friend Triffany and I have made a habit of writing thank you notes to Members of Congress to validate their cooperative acts.  We harbor no illusions about purity of intent, but we also know that positive reinforcement works.  We can be Diana to anybody’s Ares.

Focus on and fight for what we love: common goals and interests, shared humanity, connection, and one another.  It’s a lifetime’s worth of work, and well worth the fruits, if we can stick with it.

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Love Letter to My Superstar Friends

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Dear Paul & Joanne*,

I cannot tell you how grateful I am to you both for taking the time to meet me last week.  You came out in the pouring rain, not for a lighthearted night of drinks and karaoke, but to talk charged politics with your tortured, melancholic, liberal friend.  I hope it did not feel too burdensome, and that you would do it again.

It was quite the emotional evening for me, unsettling, sometimes uncomfortable, and also dominated by love.  Joanne, we have known each other about 15 years, and I know you are not a fan of politics in general.  Paul, I know you mostly through your witty holiday cards, and your occasional Facebook posts that often touch on politics.  You lean right, it seems, about as much as I lean left.  You gently called me out when I shared a Trump supporter-shaming video, reminding me to hold myself to a higher standard of discourse on all platforms.  That is why I sought you out.  When you engage, you exemplify the attitude toward political discourse that I aspire to.

I described to Joanne over the phone how distraught I had been since November, something akin to “watching the fabric of my generation’s social progress torn to shreds by a maniacally fomenting, double-machete-wielding narcissist.”  You seemed genuinely surprised and curious—why did this election have such a profoundly tormenting effect on me?  What made millions of people pour into the streets around the world in protest?  I was incredulous at your incredulity, and yet I felt a mutual, loving acceptance between friends who only want each other to be happy and feel secure.

At dinner, I could tell that you both cared acutely about my distress, and wanted to help alleviate it.  You reassured me that the worst case scenarios are highly unlikely to actually happen.  You reminded me that hyperventilation and arm flapping are not productive energy expenditures.  You gently encouraged me about the long, jagged, often meandering, and also inevitable path of social progress, and the importance of taking the long view.

I admit that I felt a little defensive at times, as if anything I said about the origins of my distress would be met with, “You’re overreacting,” and “You’re worried about nothing, please…”  We later agreed that it is never helpful to invalidate someone’s emotional response to a stressor, regardless of whether or not we can relate.  Paul, you are so well-read and convicted about your opinions.  I did not see a point in arguing, as you did not seem interested in debate, and I left feeling disappointed that I had not presented a stronger defense of my liberal ideals.  The whole exchange felt lopsided in favor of your position.  But I did learn from your point of view, which was one of my primary objectives.

Most importantly, our conversation revived my mindfulness practice.  You’re right—energy spent catastrophizing about a hell-on-earth future is energy wasted.  As Michael J. Fox says (I paraphrase), “Don’t spend your time worrying, because if what you’re worried about actually happens, now you’ve lived it twice.”  My energy is better spent in the present, attending to what is, rather than what I fear might be.  And I feel justified in my shock and dismay at what is.  In my opinion, Donald Trump has defiled the presidency and brought our politics to a new moral low that I could never have predicted.  I don’t need to ‘go apeshit’ over the future, as there is plenty of wreckage to confront right now, not the least of which is our collective refusal to engage one another in civil discourse.  I can center, ground, and focus, breathe deeply and engage, one step, one person, or one loving couple, at a time.

Last week Dan Rather wrote my heart on his Facebook page:

The threats, the lies, the willful disregard for the rule of law should be limited to the world of Hollywood caricature. To see this played out each night on the news, to read about ramblings and inconsistencies in justifications for actions that should never have been taken, is to see a moment of great peril for our nation.

I remain, however, an optimist. I see the swellings of civic engagement and action. I hear the voices of those who demand that this subversion of our national ideals shall not stand. I have covered social movements of the past, and never have seen one where so much power and numbers lie on the side of the opposition. This is a clash for the values of our nation. Our destiny is in our hands.

Our nation’s patchy, irregular social fabric may be strained to its limits today, and even torn in some places.  But the threat of real disintegration has brought forth multitudes of weavers and quilters to repair and protect its integrity.  I can acknowledge this ‘collateral beauty’ and contribute my part, through conversations like ours, to help mend the tapestry, and bend that moral arc of the universe more toward justice.

Thank you, my dear friends, for helping me train for this marathon.  You hold me up and make me stronger.  I hope I do the same for you.

Sincerely and with love,

Cathy

 

*Not their real names

To Train Or Not To Train

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My sister and brother-in-law run marathons.  No, wait, they are elite marathon-running machines.  By next weekend, they will have run 150 marathons between them in just a few years, including Ironmans and ultramarathons, in 39 states and at least 7 countries.  They lead training groups for Team to End AIDS and enjoy a loyal following of running enthusiasts and friends.  So you can imagine my honor when they recently told me, “You could totally run a marathon, Cathy.  You’re already more fit than a lot people who start training.”

For a moment I actually considered it, because wouldn’t that be so cool, to enter that elite circle?  Then I quickly remembered: I. Hate. Running.  …For now.  But it got me thinking recently–talking politics may be like marathon training.  Some people really like it and do it well (by ‘well’ I mean they are informed, articulate, respectful, and engaging with people from all points of view—their discourse is elevated).  They resemble my sister and brother-in-law: athletes who consistently perform at the top of their training, with few or no injuries, leading others to follow in similar aspirations.

Other people, however, would sooner feed themselves through a wood chipper than strap on a pair of running shoes, or engage in political discussions.

Most of us are somewhere in the middle, I suspect.  I can run a few miles with my trainer if she makes me–the conversation and scenery distract me and the time goes by faster.  And I know I can slow down or take a rest if I have to–it’s safe.  But I have many other preferred exercise activities.  Could we consider talking politics as the elite marathoning of communication?  It is so hard to do well!

When I think of long distance running my mouth goes dry.  I get short of breath and my knees hurt already.  I feel the incredible slog, one heavy step after another–not at all like what I imagine my family feels, bounding weightlessly like antelopes toward their next PR.  I experience a version of the fight-or-flight response, a visceral sensation of threat: I’ll have blisters everywhere, I’ll never make it to the end, they’ll have to carry me, I’ll have a heart attack and die!

Maybe some people have a similar reaction to politics?  I don’t know enough, it’s too complicated.  It’s overwhelming, I’ll look ignorant, people will judge and shame me before I can even finish a thought.  It’s all so emotional, I can’t handle that, it will only escalate into conflict, my relationships will all be at risk, I’ll lose all my friends!

As you may have read, I have been trying to get some conservative friends to engage face to face.  I am genuinely curious about their points of view; I want to understand.  I want to practice my skills—curiosity, openness, empathy, identifying shared interests, withholding judgment.  Two invitations were initially met with a non-response.  After a follow up call or two, I am scheduled to meet one set of friends for dinner this week, and the other said he was too busy.  I feel like I’m dragging them out running when they would much rather play golf or go bowling.

I have realized: we don’t all have to keep up with every day’s new political freak shows.  We don’t all need to be the debate champions of our particular ideology.  Not everybody has to be a marathoner.

HOWEVER:

We all need exercise.  The body is built to move.  Regular physical activity, as we all know, reduces our risks of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.  Did you also know it can decrease depression, dementia, and even cancer?  So pick your sport—just do some kind of movement every day!

Similarly, even if we don’t all talk politics, we all need effective communication skills, especially in the arenas of conflict resolution, negotiation, parenting (which encompasses them all), and the like.  We are social beings—we only survive by cooperating and living well within our tribes, and by tribes living well among one another.  That can only happen if we practice getting along.

So if you’re not a runner/marathoner, what do you do?  What is your thing, how often do you engage, and what keeps you coming back?  If you hate talking politics, how else are you already a great communicator?

Maybe you’re a natural at getting your toddler/tween/teen to see the wisdom of the rules and getting their buy-in to follow them.

Maybe you can always help your boss and coworker iron out their differences because you can understand both sides (are you in HR?).

Maybe you like to debate the merits of the Marvel Comic Universe vs. DC—and you could argue both sides because it’s just more interesting that way.

We all have areas where we shine, where we contribute to the tribe through words and actions.

I have picked up some tips along the way:

  1. Validate people’s feelings, even if you don’t agree with their position or behavior.
  2. Stay open to the 2% truth of an opposing philosophy or idea.
  3. Withhold judgment on the whole person even though they espouse an ideology you despise, at least until you know from multiple encounters that they have no shred of kindness or humanity in them.
  4. Look for what you have in common with people, and choose to focus there more than on how you differ.

So even if you’re not an elite running machine like my sister and brother-in-law, or you’re not your community’s foremost political pundit, know that your other training matters.

I may complete a marathon someday…  Never say never.  For now I’m happy to stick with my TRX, kettle bells, 7 minute and Betty Rocker workouts (once again, I have no financial interests in any of these businesses).  I appreciate my family’s invitation to run, and I respectfully decline at this time.  Similarly, I will try to be more mindful about inadvertently pressuring people to talk politics.  It’s never meant to be adversarial, only a bid for connection—I’m looking for training buddies!

I don’t need everybody to talk politics.  But I do need everybody to practice excellent communication, especially in political discourse.

We all need that.