Trust and Safety in an Uncertain World

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Suddenly I felt my heart pounding.  My palms got sweaty.  My jaw felt tense.  I’m anxious, I realized.  It felt like sometimes when I speak up in big meetings.  Wow, I don’t even have to be in front of people for this to happen, how fascinating.

It was the second or third comment I had written on another Facebook page, belonging to a high school classmate.  I think we became ‘friends’ through his wife, a friendly acquaintance of mine in high school, with whom I’ve been connected on Facebook for several years.  I don’t really know her husband at all, and yet here I was, writing long replies on his page about universal masking, why recommendations changed between March and now, and why I trust Dr. Fauci despite his apparent flip-flop on this issue.

I had entered someone else’s house, offering my unsolicited opinions.  Though we have a handful of mutual friends, I had no idea who else would attend this party, and whether I would be welcome.  I wasn’t sure it was safe.

And yet I felt compelled to enter, why?  Perhaps I felt defensive of my professional standard bearer, Dr. Fauci, the father of modern infectious disease and icon of science, medicine, and public health.  He has basically led the research to define and defeat HIV/AIDS since the 1980s.  Through six administrations, he has directed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to successfully manage H1N1, Ebola, and Zika, at home and abroad.  He is one of my heroes.  Likely, I also wanted to absolve myself a little, as I had also recommended against masking in public early on.  I wanted to help some strangers see us, the ‘experts’, as human and fallible, and also earnest and caring, worthy of heeding.

So I obsessed over my comments.  I read and reread before posting.  I edited after posting.  I included the links embedded above, inviting anyone on the thread to hear Dr. Fauci in his own words, in full.  I offered my own mea culpa twice, explaining how academics sometimes fall victim to ivory tower thinking, as we did in this case.  Perhaps this was my attempt at earning back whatever trust people may have lost because we experts contradicted ourselves in such an important and pivotal moment.  I regret this, and I wanted people to know, and then maybe not hold it against me (us).  Would I be crucified?  Or would I crack a door open to hearing what I had to say?  I feel anxious now, just thinking about it again.

My own friends discussed this on my page a few weeks ago, after my post on antibody testing (our recommendations have not changed yet).  Paul, MD PhD and rheumatologist, pointed out, “US experts really blew it initially when it came to masks… All they had to do was consider the possibility that Asian countries might be right and then consider that the risk associated with (masking) was virtually zero.  The first thing experts need to do, when confronted with circumstances that are truly new to them, is admit uncertainty and base recommendations accordingly.”  I’m so lucky to have such honest and direct friends.  I replied that I felt badly for following the ‘expert’ advice like a sheep (which is exactly how others on my acquaintance’s page described followers of universal masking, yikes).  “Lesson learned,” I wrote—but have I really learned it?  David, Paul’s and my classmate who now leads quality and hospitalist programs at his institution, replied, “It’s weird to be here with you (two) bashing experts, since the three of us are by any definition, experts.  But the value of experts is not that they’re always right, but that they have a) a better track record and b) the ability to self-correct.”  Yes, humility is key.

It all makes me wonder, how do we trust someone?  I have conversations every day with patients and non-medical friends and family, educating and advising, and they are appreciative; they trust me.  But we have already established mutually respectful, personal relationships.  What made me think I could go on this unfamiliar man’s social media page, interact with perfect strangers, and have them trust or accept anything I said, when they had already expressed reservations about, if not hostility toward, my ‘tribe’?  Was it my place?

The original post commented on universal masking and referenced Dr. Fauci not in a snarky, pejorative, or aggressive way.  If it had I would have scrolled right by.  Because it was a neutral presentation, I felt it could be safe to enter this house and offer my perspective.  Out of respect for the page owner and his friends, I did my best to present both humbly and objectively, to be informative but not condescending.  I really wanted to put my best online foot forward, to represent my tribe and my profession as well and as trustworthily (it’s a word!), as possible—to connect.  So far I have not been attacked, and a few readers have liked my comments.

In the end, as I have written before, I think it’s about how we show up to one another.  I wrote recently about tribal culture, and how through this crisis, individuals can help our own tribes thrive by modeling a more collaborative rather than competitive mindset, by amplifying our togetherness.  “Who do we want to be on the other side of this crisis?” I asked.  David Logan and colleagues go on in their work to discuss how tribes can effectively interact with other tribes, forming alliances and advancing even greater good together.  They posit that tribes draw closer when their respective members, especially designated leaders (representatives), connect.

We find ourselves now in an existential battle for our lives, literally.  Now is exactly the time to find common ground, step onto it, set up camp, and make decisions from there—to merge tribes.  A friend asked me today, “Who do you want to be now?”

I want to be a connector, I answered.  I will do my best not to contribute to division, polarization, alienation, disconnection, and suffering, through my words or actions.  I will not be perfect.  I will make mistakes.  I will continue to learn and apply.  I will strive to earn and maintain people’s trust.  And I will help make it safe for people to question and challenge, discuss and explore any point of view.  In the face of uncertainty, this is what I can offer.

Please Stop With the Fighting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

 

Sexism and Apologies 2020

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“If you say, ‘Yeah, there was sexism in this race,’ everyone says, ‘Whiner!’ If you say, ‘No, there was no sexism, about a bazillion women think, ‘What planet do you live on?’”

That is how Senator Elizabeth Warren answered a reporter when asked whether she thought gender played a role in her suspending her presidential campaign.  I recommend watching the whole video clip.  In case anyone wonders: if the question even needs to be asked, then yes, gender played a role.  But Senator Warren rightly called out the question for what it is: a trap for any woman running for high elected office.  Her statement summarizes it succinctly; she knows what’s what, and she names it without apology.

I was more upset than I expected when Aunt Eliz Crusader ended her campaign.   Megan Garber expressed the story of my profound disappointment eloquently in her piece for The Atlantic:  “America Punished Elizabeth Warren for her Competence”.  Basically she elaborates the apparently inevitable social equation for women:

Competent  +  Vocal  +  Unapologetic   =   “Strident”  +  “Shrill” +  “Condescending”

The past two weeks I have had a series of encounters wherein I find myself voicing opinions and positions more firmly than I might have in the past.  I feel confident and grounded in my knowledge and expertise.  I am professional and respectful.  I apologized for writing a long email, even though the words were necessary and clear.  My strong woman mentor reminded me to save apologies for when I actually commit a transgression.

What I have learned (perhaps again) in this time, however, is that relationship discord, even just the possibility of it, is what distresses me the most.  How will I be perceived for voicing my concerns, for advocating for my peers and teams?  How will a negative perception undermine my effectiveness?  Will it cost me my seat at this table or others?

Does any man ask himself these questions?

Given that I was already knee deep in vulnerability and self-doubt around these encounters, the Atlantic piece poked my fears and prodded them to the surface.  It shook me.  It also made me angry that here we still are, in 2020, unable to accept, let alone embrace, competent, vocal, and unapologetic women in leadership.  And it’s not just men; countless women also disavow their sisters.

I vented my disappointment on Facebook (of course):

“So it is down to three Old White Men.  Very disappointing.”

A friend tried to make light of the situation, pointing out that Donald Trump is the youngest of the three.  This attempt at levity (from the Right) felt like a nemesis rubbing salt in my fresh wound.  Twice I rebuffed; twice he persisted.  Finally I (voiced):  “I feel ignored and dismissed when I express distress and you make light of it.  Perhaps my distress is not clear to you, because you only know me through social media [we were friendly acquaintances in high school]; you may not know how upset I am.  But after two replies by me rejecting your attempt at humor, to have you schooling me [that humor is a ‘primary’ way] of dealing with [politics] just makes me more angry.”

Turns out he had mistyped; he’d meant to write that humor is one of his primary ways of coping with the absurdity of politics.  He apologized to me.  It felt sincere.  I was consoled, and I thanked him.

Competent and vocal.  Confident and unapologetic.  Respectful and humble.

We need all of these qualities and more to be true leaders.  Women, arguably, must work harder than our male counterparts to prove that we possess all of them.  Then we get punished when the proof proves irrefutable.  How sadly ironic.  The truth is we need many more of our leaders, men and women alike, to own, exude, and model these virtues.  The last two are not weak, though they may feel profoundly vulnerable, which is not the same thing.

I feel urgent impatience at the state of sexism in America.  But I know how to soothe and manage myself; I can reclaim the patient urgency of fierce optimism at my core.

I will persist.

Aunt Eliz has shown me how.

Attune and Differentiate:  One Week’s Synthesis

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Friends, don’t you just love when an idea you resonate with recurs in your consciousness from disparate sources in short order, further deepening its meaning?  I share three pieces with you this week, which all deepened my commitment to embracing the paradox of attunement and differentiation.

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First, I listened again to Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness.  I highly recommend this book to help us all, conservatives and progressives alike, engage (not avoid) one another this election year with a lot more compassion, civility, and mutual respect.  Throughout the book Sister Brené shares personal stories as well as evidence from her research that define true belonging, which I think of as another expression for self-actualization and self-transcendence.  In her words:

True belonging requires us to believe in and belong to ourselves so fully that we can find sacredness in both being a part of something, and standing alone when necessary. But in a culture that’s rife with perfectionism and pleasing, and with the erosion of civility, it’s easy to stay quiet, hide in our ideological bunkers, or fit in rather than show up as our true selves and brave the wilderness of uncertainty and criticism.

Attune and differentiate:  these two practices are not only not mutually exclusive, they are essential and integral for whole person and societal health and well-being.  Read the book to adopt her four practices to advance true belonging, for yourself and for all of us:

  1. People Are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move In.
  2. Speak Truth to Bullshit. Be Civil.
  3. Hold Hands. With Strangers.
  4. Strong Back. Soft Front.  Wild Heart.

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Second, I met Massimo on Ozan’s last Inner Circle Zoom call.  He is a designer and facilitator from Italy—thank you again, Ozan, for connecting so many of us all around the world!  Massimo has launched a blog, which resonated with me because he also advocates finding your voice (differentiating) as well as finding a community of belonging (attunement) as a reason to write:

…Meet new people and to interact with them

Learning adventures can make you feel on a solitary path, too much unbalanced on the input, reading and digesting side without much interaction. Expand your network, look for more interactive exchanges with whom might provide an alternative, critical point of view compared to yours. Exposing your opinions leads self-selecting people to network and resonate with you. Find your tribe. We need many and none at the same time. You need different communities where to manifest and explore your interests. On the other hand, you need to better focus on creating those which are more fertile ground to nurture your continuously changing interests and aspirations.

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Third, I read David Brooks’s article in The New York Times on the ethos of Scandanavian education.  Eloquent as usual, he synthesizes a complex set of ideas into language we can all understand:

19th-century Nordic elites…realized that they were going to have to make lifelong learning a part of the natural fabric of society.

…(Their system) is devised to help (students) understand complex systems and see the relations between things — between self and society, between a community of relationships in a family and a town. 

…Nordic educators also worked hard to develop the student’s internal awareness. That is to say, they helped students see the forces always roiling inside the self — the emotions, cravings, wounds and desires. If you could see those forces and their interplay, as if from the outside, you could be their master and not their slave. 

…Their intuition was that as people grow, they have the ability to go through developmental phases, to see themselves and the world through ever more complex lenses. A young child may blindly obey authority — Mom, Dad, teacher. Then she internalizes and conforms to the norms of the group. Then she learns to create her own norms based on her own values. Then she learns to see herself as a node in a network of selves and thus learns mutuality and holistic thinking. [See Changing on the Job by Jennifer Garvey Berger for more on this theory of adult development.]

Scandanavians…have a distinctive sense of the relationship between personal freedom and communal responsibility.

(Meanwhile, in the United States…) If you have a thin educational system that does not help students see the webs of significance between people, does not even help students see how they see, you’re going to wind up with a society in which people can’t see through each other’s lenses.

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In 2020 more than ever, we need to cultivate much stronger relationship skills.  We must identify and honor our core values and stand up for them, even when attacked by those closest to us—perhaps even especially then.  How we honor our best selves determines how we honor others.  When we show up at our most honest and authentic, we can call forth the same in others to meet us.  We can relate as fellow humans, inextricably connected, mutually interdependent, and all in it together.  Once we realize this, we can know in our hearts that we truly belong to ourselves and to one another, and we can more easily get on with the world’s most important work—connecting humanity in health, safety, and love.

Be a Connecting Node

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How would you describe American political culture today?

What about the culture at your workplace?

In your family?

Are dissenting voices welcomed?  How do those in authority wield their power?  Do the led have a say in decisions and policies that affect them?  Are their needs and interests taken into account by those who lead?

What role do you play in each of these systems?  How do you contribute to the function, dysfunction, morale, and relationships in these interconnected, overlapping, inextricable and sometimes tenuous systems?

How much of these cultures do you own, do you take personal responsibility for?

I have written before about the interaction between a system and its individuals.  In each of the systems I name above—our nation, your workplace, your family—you are a single individual, a node [a point at which lines or pathways intersect or branch; a central or connecting point].  You are connected, directly and indirectly, to every other node in all of your systems.  Thus, you connect each of your overlapping systems to every other one.  So do I.  This is how we are all connected, every single one of us, and our planet.

Thus, what you do affects me, even if I have never met you, even if we live on different continents, in separate generations, speaking mutually unintelligible languages, and vice versa, for all of us.

Octavia Butler said it best:

All that you touch
You Change.
All that you Change
Changes you.
The only lasting truth
Is Change.
God
Is Change.

So how do you change what you touch?

Do you make it better than it was?  Does the change you make make you better in return?

If the only lasting truth is change, then what do we want tomorrow to look like?  What about next year?  What kind of world do we want our grandchildren and their grandchildren to inherit?

Are you a node that connects, using your power and love to thicken the ties between your adjacent nodes and systems, making them stronger and more resilient?  Who is healthier, stronger, and happier for you having touched them?  How have they then extended that health, strength and joy to others?  How have you resisted destructive forces and stood in the way of systems disintegration?  Whom have you protected?  What did it cost you, and what did you gain?  What have you earned?  How will you persist?  What and who hold you up?  On which nodes do you lean, from which do you draw strength, and how then do you pass that strength on?  How do you influence and co-create the culture around you this way?

Or are you a destructive, severing node?  How do you go around blowing up connections, weakening relationship infrastructures?  Maybe you don’t see it this way. Perhaps you see your work as culling, pruning, removing extraneous nodal debris, clearing the path for a more righteous supersystem to rise.  What does this cost you?  Is the benefit worth the price?  Who are your coconspirators in this effort?  How do they change you for your connections to them?  How do you expect your connections to other destructive nodes to evolve?  What is your impact on your systems cultures, being this way?

I suspect we all possess both poles of nodal potential.  Probably most of us go about our days in relative mindlessness, speaking and acting as our surroundings and culture dictate, by convention and custom.  We suppress the inner dissonance that arises when our personal instincts run counter to prevailing winds of rhetoric.  We fear losing connections if our personal nodal identity reflects a different light or sounds a different note from the collective thrum.  The status quo feels easier to uphold.

I posit to you today that our systems are disintegrating fast, eroded by myriad destructive nodes, spreading like slime mold on a global petri dish.  I argue that our collective political culture suffers much today from these destructive nodes, and connector nodes struggle to nurture ties and maintain relationships.  In such times, we may feel tempted to give in, to allow our inner rage monster to tantrum, to succumb to swelling, destructive, disconnecting culture.  Indeed, it is hard to resist.

And yet, we continue.  We march on.

Culture is created and maintained in each day to day interaction between all members of a system. Any individual may choose, at any time, to maintain the status quo or make a shift. It is the accumulation of multiple small shifts, simultaneously and in series, that moves a system to a new, improved state.  Each day we awaken, we have a choice—an infinite series of choices—to make a shift toward connecting and strengthening our intertwined systems.

Do not wait for someone else to go first.  Make the choice yourself, today, right now.  Be a connecting node.  Speak and act, post online, and show up in person, irrefutably, as a connector.  Make your touch productive and generative, inclusive, empowering, and communal.  See how this changes how others show up to you, and how that changes you for the better still.  Then watch the slime mold recede before your eyes as connector node energy amplifies and restores balance.

Slime molds recur.  Connecting nodes hold the line.  We need you.

This Year, Call Forth Our Best Selves

 

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I find myself even more self-conscious today than I did five years ago.  I hear fellow Asian-Americans express similar sentiments, especially as the coronavirus crisis escalates.  My friends and I haven’t experienced outright racism, but we’re on the lookout for it, as we see so many others deal with it every day.  Call it hypersensitivity if you wish.  But if you are white, please consider how your race provides you the unearned privilege of never (or at least seldom) having to question whether someone else’s negativity toward you is due to your skin color.

This election year, I’m deciding how I will be and how I will do.  I play with boundaries around media exposure, social media engagement, and conversations on politics.  I want to do it better than I did last time.  Soon after I started my Facebook page c.2008, I intended it to be a monument to my most positive tendencies.  That intention gave way to wrath and fury for much of 2016, ending regrettably in a couple of severed relationships.  At some point I reviewed my posts and found an alarming ratio of negative posts, mostly written during fits of impulsive rage.  That was a wake-up call.

By January 2017 I had recovered at least somewhat.  February 2017 brought a series of “Rules of Engagement” queries on this blog, which I am gratified to reread tonight.  These three years I have trained hard to approach all political conversations with more curiosity, generosity, and commitment to connection.  Some people and topics are still too sensitive to broach, but progress continues.  My training continues alongside my Better Angels tribe members.

I successfully moderated my media consumption these two weeks around impeachment.  I read Lamar Alexander’s statement 3 days ago and considered its purported rationale.  Part of it made sense to me, and still I’m unsatisfied with the whole situation, which I shared on Facebook.  My friends and I exchanged opinions and ideas civilly and respectfully, which I appreciate.

In the end, I believe engagement will be the solution.  In 2016 only 50% of eligible voters cast a ballot.  Of those, a little over half chose Hillary Clinton.  But it wasn’t enough for ‘my side.’  This year we must get the apathetic and disengaged back to the polls. We have nine months to rectify voter access, to connect with those on the fence and invite them down on the side of inclusion, equity, integrity, and respect for humanity.  If our opponents fling excrement, we cannot follow suit.  We must not become the shit-flinging adversaries we say we abhor—no matter which side we’re on.  We must speak from our highest core values, rather than to their lowest words and behaviors.  We must connect deeply with every person’s need to feel seen, heard, understood, accepted, and loved.  I have THE. HARDEST. time considering 45’s innate humanity.  But if I start there, I can handle any conversation with anyone else, and I show any ‘opponent’ why I am a worthy rival and not just an idiot enemy.  And I bring out the worthy rival ahead of the idiot enemy in them.

Well, at least this is the goal, the guiding light I intend to follow this year.  Surely I will fall under shadows sometimes.  But the more I manage to stay in the light, the less I will suffer and the less suffering I will inflict on others.  I intend to call forth my best self, for my sake the sake of all those around me.

 

Better Angels:  Clarifying the Commitment

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Dear Friends,

Happy New Year!

What have you committed to?  What will define a good or great year when you look back on December 31?

Better Angels Illinois chapter leaders held a potluck brunch today.  Over a mouthwatering international selection of food, we reviewed activities and growth in 2019, and set our sights on 2020 with enthusiasm and camaraderie.  We found encouragement, inspiration, and connection in one another on a remarkably mild January day in Evanston.

We spent a long time today discussing negative media coverage about BA (read in the Washington Post here and the New York Times here).  Basically they say the work is futile at best, and harmful to a progressive agenda at worst.  We queried ourselves for how these articles make us feel, where we think they’re coming from, and how we might approach and respond, both individually and collectively.  I felt so gratified when we agreed that probably we should call forth the communication skills we teach in our workshops:  stay curious and respectful, acknowledge our detractors’ valid points, and stand in our core values, our WHY for doing this work.  I shared my two most recent posts on why I committed to Better Angels and my Fierce Optimism about the value we add to the greater political conversation.

I’m also gratified to read this long article in The Atlantic by Andrew Ferguson.  He attended BA workshops and interviewed the organization’s leaders, took the time to really understand BA’s Why and How, and then summarized it eloquently.  He addressed Julie Kohler’s objections in the WaPo article with respect, humor, and almost defiant hope.  If you’re up for reading another couple thousand words after this, check it out; I highly recommend it.

Finally, I share with you below a letter to members from John Wood Jr., Director of Public Outreach for Better Angels.  I’m satisfied, for now, to let his words speak for me (especially the parts I bolded).

Onward, friends.  We will always be in this together, and I pledge to continue figuring out a better way forward.

***

January 5th, 2020

A Call to Courage

Dear Catherine,

Better Angels began with a kernel of faith.

After the election in 2016 was over, you wouldn’t have found many people who would have told you that it would be easy to bring together 20 or so Clinton and Trump supporters to spend a weekend together discovering their “better angels” when the wounds of the election were so raw. This happened though, and our belief that it could was the beginning of what became an enterprise of goodwill that spread across America. Here at the start of 2020, Better Angels finds itself at the center of a small, but nationwide, movement of Americans from across the divide to reestablish charitable understanding as the foundation of our national conversation.

But our work is deeper than that. And it needs to go deeper.

(I sought to cast a vision of what it looks like to go deeper than ‘merely’ empathy in reforming the fraught social culture of our country in an address to the Visionaries Summit, a gathering of New Age social entrepreneurs, last autumn in California. See it here: Social Transformation Through Self-Transformation: John Wood, Jr. at Visionaries🙂

Building understanding between Americans is not something that we do merely because it feels good.

It does feel good. That is true. There are so many amazing moments in the work that we do that we could never count them.

It does not feel good, however, to have people attack you (from your own ‘side’ no less) for “fraternizing with the enemy.” It does not feel good to put yourself in the line of fire of someone whom you are trying to show kindness to, only to receive contempt from them in return.

We do not do this work simply because it feels good. The work we do is hard. Sometimes, it even hurts.

We do it because the future of the United States of America depends on it.

America’s future rests not first and foremost necessarily on who the president of the United States is or who controls the houses of congress. The future of our nation depends on our own willingness, and our own ability, to maintain the bonds of civic friendship that allow us to behave honorably towards each other as a people.

We do not oppose the two party system at Better Angels. Indeed, we are Republicans and Democrats, alongside Independents and members of third parties, striving together in a working alliance for a deeper good in this country. We seek in essence what you might call Dr. King’s “Beloved Community,” or the “more perfect union” set forth as the aspiration of the Constitution of the United States.

Yet while not challenging the legitimacy of our political parties, we recognize that much in the way of the incentives that are guiding our major political and politically affiliated institutions, including and beyond the parties, are predicated on a willingness to divide the American people for short-sighted political gain.

The means by which some forces in politics, the media, and elsewhere do so often times include intellectual dishonesty – and a striking lack of humility and empathy.

Perhaps one side is more guilty of this than the other. Most of our members, leaders and volunteers feel this way, even if we disagree on which side that actually is. The true balance of error in our politics between the two parties matters. It is a subject that is fit for debate.

Yet, as Republicans and Democrats (and all others) here is what we say matters more:

What matters more is that we set an example for how Americans ought to treat one another – both for the ‘other side’ but more importantly for our own.

What matters more is that we discover and rediscover the power of those ideals that transcend and salvage our politics – the ideals that make us one American people – beyond race, religion or party.

What matters more is that we create the structures, the environment and the resources that allow Americans to engage, to organize and to rebuild community around these ideals – and in opposition to the ways of thinking that would prevent this.

The bases for this work are patriotism and empathy.  But it is also courage.

We believe in the decency of the American people. We believe in the decency of you. We also believe in the bravery of the American people.

We believe you have the courage to meet dishonesty with integrity. We believe you have the courage to meet demagoguery with dignity. We believe you have the bravery to return love for hatred and the tenacity to return understanding for fear.

That is the stand we take in 2020. We are sending out a call to courage. We are grateful that you have the courage to stand with us.

Much, much more to come. Just as America faces a great test this year, our organization and our movement must rise to the challenge of the preserving the heart of our civic conscience. Together, we are equal to the task.

-John Wood, Jr.

National leader & Director of Public Outreach

Better Angels

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