Letter to Self, November 4, 2020

Dear Cathy,

HOLY COW what a year, amIright?  How are you?  What was yesterday like?  I know you wanted to sign up to work the polls, and decided to be at work with your team instead.  Maybe they didn’t need you, but you thought it was right.  What was the vibe, could you feel the pulse? 

How have you observed people holding their own stuff together, and helping others do the same?  How have you done this… and not?  What do you need right now?  What does the family need?  And your teams?  Friends?  Leaders?

Today is your friend’s birthday, make sure you call her. 

And maybe keep the calendar clear this weekend (except for that alphabet workout on Sunday, of course).  Give yourself and the family time and space to breathe and settle down.  There may not be an outcome for a while—it’s anybody’s guess at this point!  It’s all so nuts.  Whatever happens, we must find a way to recover and reconnect; this is imperative.

How will you conduct yourself in the coming months, regardless of the outcome? 

Looking back, you have learned and matured much in the past 4 years—STRONG WORK, MAMA!  Haha, finally, I get to say this to myself. 😉  Remember when you could not help but RAGE and YELL on Facebook, when you succumbed to impulsive ad hominem, then felt helpless and exhausted?  The exhaustion feels different this time, no?  It has more meaning, more purpose.  Because you have done the inner work to show up as your better self.  You have reflected, consulted, read, challenged, practiced, rejected, regulated, and engaged.  You’ve also basked in the nourishing light and warmth of mentors and role models, showing you the value and fruits of magnanimity and grace.

You participated better this time.  You wrote and mailed postcards.  You phone banked to fellow Chinese Americans.  You focused more on what you’re for than what you’re against.  Most of all, you did your best to elevate conversations.  You seek the Strong Middle, where people can have heartfelt, empathic, and often uncomfortable conversations, in service of connection.  You compromised none of your core values, and held certain ones in front, like curiosity, kindness, respect, and generosity.  Often such attitudes were not returned, from either ‘the opposition’ or ‘your own side’. 

But you got enough to keep going, and now you’re stronger.  And it’s all stoked the embers of positive change—the rock circle around your inner campfire enlarges.   You’ve found friends who also seek connection across difference.  Together you will create wider space and build a beautiful bonfire—visible from afar, inviting, welcoming, warming, and inspiring.  There’s a knock you can no longer ignore; you are called to do more.

Let this letter serve as your ethos manifesto—a first draft, at least.  When you feel frustrated and hopeless, when all you encounter tell you it’s a lost cause; when you feel attacked and diminished, and tempted to behave badly or give up, read this.

It’s an Infinite Game.  The goal in an infinite game is not to ‘win’; it’s to stay in the game.  Others may play to vanquish you, your cause, or one another.  This will never happen—there will always be new players; the issues, conflicts, and polarities will never go away.  Your job is to modify the game, to make it more humane for all players, while you advance your finite goals.  The costs of playing should not outweigh the rewards as they do today.  You know you can help rebalance, to give voice, strength, and power to those whose Why is connection.  That is how you will leave the game better for having played.

Center.  Ground.  Focus.  Engage.  This mantra served you well for years.  You know your own core values.  Their roots run deep and strong; they hold you up; trust them.  You know the truth of your message, no matter how it gets assailed.  You also draw strength and light from your amazing friends. They will stand by you—and you them—you hold each other up high.  Trust that, too.

No ad hominem.  Your mantra for the past few years:  Present. Open. Grounded. Kind. Loving. Smart.  You can be strong and flexible—strong back, soft front, wild heart, as Joan Halifax and Brené Brown write.  It serves no one for you to engage with negativity.  Firmness, directness, and steadfastness, however, along with fairness, humility, and accountability, will get you far.  Standing in these practices, I am confident you will regret less in the end. 

One Day, One Moment, One Breath at a time.  Everywhere you go, in every challenge, mindfulness emerges as a universal sustaining practice.  You always have your breath.  You can always use it, this quintessential polarity that teaches us about simplicity and infinity.  Lean in to it.  Draw in strength, respire peace.

Finally:  Dance.  Less news.  More music.

You’ got this.

Pre- and Post-op Election Care

Christine Gilmore, “The Path to Peace,” October 2020

Happy Fall, my friends!  Are the leaves near you as brilliant and wakening as they are by me?

This morning I had another Zoom call with my Braver Angels pals Mande and Sharon—we have met monthly since soon after the pandemic’s onset.  I come away feeling seen, valued, and loved every single time.  And we hatch plans to change the world, too—stay tuned. 😉

Mande’s rock star sister hosts “Jeffersonian Dinners,” where friends gather and discuss a meaningful question—a modern day salon—oh, be still my heart.  This week’s question, for the Jeffersonians and me alike:  “After the election, how can we come together?”

Coming together now means connecting and healing.  It means committing to this as work, no more blaming and playing victim.  It means each of us owning our part, because we are all active participants in all of our relationships, and the current state of our culture is the sum total of all of our complex, inextricable relationships. Coming together fosters peace, which I think we all yearn for, especially now.

I believe we cannot die at peace unless we live in peace first, and peace must be cultivated.  A life of peace necessarily embraces openness, curiosity, humility, vulnerability, patience, and generosity.  How lucky I am to know so many models in these domains, like Sharon, who teaches these exact skills—she helps us train.  It’s like prehab—getting the body healthy through clean eating and good sleep before surgery.  Then we build on this foundation in rehab, increasing range of motion as well as both core stability and mobility—think of this as a metaphor for interpersonal encounters and relationships.  It doesn’t just come, even if you’re a natural, and times like this will test your talent as well as your skill.   “If you don’t have the practice then you can’t show up consistently,” Sharon wisely explains.  So what are the practices?

How do you make people feel?

By now you must recognize Maya Angelou’s simple and profound words: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

In these coming weeks and months—actually for the rest of our lives—what if we each attended more to this?  What if we all take responsibility for at least half of how people feel after they encounter us?  And what if we all committed to making every encounter as positive as possible for the other person, ahead of ourselves?  Tonight I will review only two of the myriad practices for pre- and re-hab’ing our ailing culture. 

What are you already doing to make things better?

Listen More Deeply—Much More Deeply 

Listen through the words and beyond your own head. 

The most superficial listening level focuses on what I think of what someone is saying.  I listen to refute and proclaim, to be right, to dominate, to dismiss, and maybe even shame.  Conversations and relationships go south and disintegrate quickly in this scenario.  Yuck. 

We can connect, however, when we start listening holistically to the words, imperfect and inarticulate as they may be, to hear what people think.  How do they perceive, understand, and rationalize (we all rationalize)?  Where, intellectually, do their opinions and positions originate?  This kind of listening can lead to truly curious questioning and when done well, to important insights and deeper understanding.

At the third listening level, where we truly connect personally, we hear how people feel.  Humans are fundamentally emotional beings with the capacity for rational thought, NOT logically thinking beings who happen to have feelings.  If I’m able to hear emotions, then recognize, identify, relate to, and acknowledge them, I diffuse and de-escalate.  This is often the first moment of deep connection in an encounter. 

Lastly, listen for core values.  When conversations escalate and we suffer emotional hijack, often some core value (eg honesty, fairness, integrity, equality) has been violated.  When I recognize this I can then relate and connect, and this mutual understanding almost automatically further de-escalates a conflict.

Elevate Your Opponent’s Humanity

Some years ago driving to work, I saw a young man, maybe in his twenties, cross the street in front of me.  He looked fit, dressed casually, a little scruffy on the face.  Suddenly I saw him not as a pedestrian, or an office worker, or a fellow Chicagoan.  I saw him as a mother’s son.  I wondered to myself, is she thinking of you right now?  I bet she’s proud, no matter what you do.  I hope you carry her love around with you all the time.  I hope it sustains you.  I hope that for my own children.

Listen to Simon Sinek interview Bob Chapman on his podcast about leadership.  Chapman, a father of 6, likens leadership to parenting.  His Why is to make people feel cared for rather than used.  He sees each of his employees as someone’s precious child, and thus someone to be valued and loved, just like he would want his own kids to be treated.

How do we do this?  We recognize people’s strengths.  We acknowledge their core values, we validate their feelings.  We respect their opinions and engage in disagreement with understanding and not ad hominem attacks.  We aim for 5 positive interactions/exchanges for every negative one, to cultivate relationships of deep trust and safety. 

What if we did this with the people who disagree with us?  If we imagine debating someone with each of our parents watching, how would that change the dynamic?  If we truly cared for each other as members of one human family, how much better could this all really be?

I’m thinking hard (and soft) about how best to use my time, energy, creativity, relationships, and writing in these coming months.  We’ve dug ourselves into a great, big, muddy (sh*tty) hole, yes.  And we absolutely can dig ourselves out.  But it will take all of us.  I’ll try to keep reminding us.

The only way out is through.  The best way through is together.

Excavating the Dark Side of the Shitpile

Who’s ready to get off this roller coaster?

Bazinga, no dice!  We are strapped in like fat toddlers to professionally installed car seats and this hellish ride ain’t stopping anytime soon. 

What am I talking about?  COVID?  Racial injustice?  The economy?  Politics?  Riots and looting?  Wildfires?  Square dancing hurricanes?  Climate change?  Well, all of it, of course.  We are in it, my friends.  Oh. Yeah.

*sigh*

As always, my friend Donna enlightens me and I feel better.  In our recent conversation I recalled her assertion a decade ago that humanity pushes toward ever increasing consciousness and enlightenment.  Right after the 2016 election I may have laughed out loud (or cried) at this idea.  But today I take a different perspective.  How can I say this in the middle of all the tumult and crisis?  Because tumult and crisis are exactly the evidence of impending breakthrough.  Anyone who has done any truly deep, inner work knows that enlightenment cannot come without a whole shit-ton of pain and suffering.  We also know that on the other, light side, when we get there, the effort was always worth it.  My “Sh*tpile” post may be only the second or third I ever wrote on this blog:

Everybody has one.  We inherit large parts of it from our parents, whose parents passed theirs down, etc.  Life experiences add mass and odor as we grow up.  It sits squarely in the middle of the house of our existence.  For the most part, we simply live our lives around it, walking past every day, careful not to knock any pieces off.  The surface gets dry and crusty; we grow accustomed to the smell.  No big deal.

Once in a while, something moves us to start digging, like that sudden urge to clean out the closet.  We quickly learn that sh*tpile insides stay fresh and painful, like unhealed wounds when scabs suddenly get torn off.  Our eyes water, our senses are overwhelmed, and we want to escape, and fast.  Maybe we avoid that room for a while, or we come back driving a tank to flatten the pile, to the destruction of other property.

Then last year I wrote about the poop flinging that happens when somebody else knocks off a piece of our shitpile, in “All Hail Your Dark Side”: 

What triggers you?

I don’t mean your pet peeves (please, stop using “there’s” when speaking about anything in the plural).  I mean what gets under your skin and affects you viscerally, really hijacks you?  I’m talking about the thing that escalates you so fast or intensely it’s like an out of body experience—you know you’re overreacting, you know it’s irrational, and yet all you can do is sit by and watch it unfold, powerless to control or direct it.

I submit that we are at this moment, collectively, neck deep in our triggered societal shitpile. I’m thinking mostly about systemic American racism, but I also include our profoundly political, ideological, and cultural polarization.  We’ got some serious reckoning to do, my peeps.  How the hell did we get here, and how the f*** do we get out?

“What if this is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?”  Valarie Kaur asks.  What if this is exactly the Work we all need to do to reach that higher plane of human relationship?  What if we are all called to participate—fully, both feet, deep end—with only one another as life preservers?  Brené Brown calls it “Day 2,” the messy middle between realization and resolution, where the Reckoning, Rumbling, and Revolution happen.  It’s the second act in Joseph Cambell’s hero story arc, after the hero has tried every way of avoiding, denying, deflecting, and averting the task, and finally resigns, and rises, to meet it.  The gripping, tense, thrilling part of any story is this messy middle, the part we dread and relish at the same time.

In the Shitpile post I assert that we can use our life manure to cultivate a life garden that brings joy, fulfillment, and peace.  I use the metaphor of wise gardeners and tools that we can recruit to make the Work easier and more meaningful.  The pile is deep, pungent, and squishy in that way that creates a vacuum, sucking you further in every time you move, apparently impossible to escape.  But we can do it.  Look for help from people who already wield the most effective implements—Curiosity, Humility, Respect, Openness, Non-judgment, Kindness, Empathy, Self-Awareness, and Self-Control.

I present below my hardware store of other tools, accumulated to date, that help me relish ‘way more than dread.  They inform, educate, challenge, and stimulate me.  Along with my pit crew, these resources and practices give me the vital energy and strength, and really the joy, to pursue the hard conversations, to engage ‘the opposition,’ and to make a God. Damn. Difference.  I hope at least some of it resonates with you.  What else would you add to the store?

The Books

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Four Days to Change by Micheal Welp

How to Be and Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (still getting through this one—it’s the esoteric lecture)

Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad (will revisit this one—it’s the life workbook)

But I Don’t See You as Asian by Bruce Reyes-Chow

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

The Websites/Groups/Resources

Braver Angels—depolarizing America, one conversation at a time

Uprooting Inequity –Ayo Magwood—American history scholar teaches history of racism in America online.  I’ve taken two of her classes and recommend them highly.

The Root—“The Blacker the Content the Sweeter the Truth”

The Dispatch—conservative news

All Sides—news from left, center, and right organized around topic/issue

David French, The French Press

Chris Ladd, Political Orphans, and formerly GOPLifer

The Concepts and Practices

Technical vs Adaptive Challenges and Change—Heifetz and Linsky

PEARLS:  Fostering connection in communication—a copyrighted framework from the Academy of Communication in HealthcarePartnership, Empathy, Acknowledgement, Respect, Legitimation, Support

Asking truly Open, Honest Questions—Parker Palmer, Center for Courage and Renewal

Cone in the Box:  Perspective taking—Judy Sorum Brown

Managing Polarities—Barry Johnson