Shoots in the Poop

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It’s December 4th… Time to look back?  Honestly, I’d rather just get this year over with and move on,  because I have already been looking back all this time.  Since January I have counted—weeks and months since the knee injury, months since starting the new job, since surgery, since a spring crisis, since the last this or the first that.  What was it all for?  I think I was just reminding myself that there’s been a lot going on, reassuring myself that I’m not just whining, not being weak for letting my personal health habits slip.

I’ve felt like a relative slug for the last 6 months, despite my best efforts.  I think I must have eaten a pint of ice cream every two days for most of the spring and early summer.  Looking back on the calendar, I stopped using smiley stickers to mark workouts around July—their intensity was only worth hand-drawn smileys.  By and since August they aren’t worth smileys at all—I just jot down what I did in shorthand.  Some weeks it was barely anything.   I judge myself every day—perhaps less harshly than I might have a few years ago, and also less compassionately than I might a few more years from now.  I still struggle with the fear of self-indulgence if I allow myself too much self-compassion.  I am still learning self-compassion.  I know it takes time to rewire our limbic brain patterns with knew learnings from our cognitive brains.  So I will keep trying, because I know it’s helping.  And I’m modeling for the kids.  We can do our best and still fail.  The key is to keep moving.  We can practice admitting we need help, seek it from the appropriate sources, lean on it heavily, and stand back up eventually.  And then we remember those who helped us, and prepare to be helpful in return.

I have leaned on so many this year, I feel almost speechless at the outpouring of support and love.  The only way I don’t collapse from this weight of gratitude is by storing it like a battery—ready to be discharged, full power, when someone needs to plug into me.  This may be my favorite thing about humanity—that we are wired to connect so tightly, to help one another in webs of mutual love and kindness that can extend ad infinitum.

moths on poop

So I’ll look back a little.  This week I feel a turning.  Did I say this already recently?  Oh yes, it was November 12.  I was making more room for books, trying to stay off of my phone, off of Facebook.  Being on the laptop every night to post to the blog stymied that last part, but it also bought awareness of how I find loopholes in the best plans for self-discipline.  And the daily writing practice also contributed loads to this internal revolution.  This was my fourth year doing NaBloPoMo.  It was by far the most fun, the smoothest, and the most rewarding attempt yet (I think I also said this last year?), and now I miss writing every day (definitely have not said this before).  Maybe it was the daily dopamine hit of views and likes.  But I think it’s more than that.  Through the daily discipline, I had a chance to process and synthesize so many ideas and connections that had been marinating for months, maybe even years.  I practiced prioritizing, selecting, and distilling those ideas into about 1000 words each day, more for my own benefit than anyone else’s.  That people read and related to them was definitely a happy bonus.

Besides NBPM, I attribute this turnaround to two books that Donna recommended to me earlier this fall:  Leadership and Self-Deception and The Anatomy of Peace, both by The Arbinger Institute.  I have wanted to write about them for the last several weeks, but I haven’t yet figured out how to prioritize, select, and distill the lessons coherently.  The foundational ideas are not necessarily new, but they are profound.  The books are written as modern allegories, and there is just something about the metaphors and analogies that has unlocked and integrated everything I have learned about inner work, communication, relationships, and leadership to date.  And that is saying a lot.  Because of these books, the daily writing, and all the conversations I’m having (with myself and with others) as a result of both, the two most challenging relationships in my life right now have fundamentally improved—mostly because I have been able to shift my own attitude.  As with all things, this new ‘way of being’ will take practice.  I need to keep the training wheels on for a while yet.  But now that I have made this turn, the path looks straight, and I see light.

The manure has piled on all year.  So much fertilizer, oh my gosh.  It’s done its job, though, because I have definitely grown.  I feel strong, healthy shoots of green popping out through the thick, dark carpet of poop.

Recentering—Vaccine post #3

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NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

When you buy a red car suddenly you notice so many red cars on the road.  I write two posts on vaccines, and now I see all these vaccine posts on my Facebook feed. One made me sad for multiple reasons.

Dr. Jennifer Chuang , a pediatrician who ran for the state legislature in New Jersey, posted this:

In 2017, I was moved to run for office in the NJ State legislature because of bills being introduced that were harmful to public health. Among the areas that I stood firm on were the importance and safety of vaccinations, and I was harshly attacked for that, even threatened.
However, NJ should not be proud of introducing the most pieces of legislation that would have made our children at risk for vaccine preventable illnesses. The current measles outbreak in New Jersey has now grown to 18 cases. Legislative decisions have consequences, especially to public health.

“From 2011 to 2017, New Jersey lawmakers introduced the most pieces of legislation that would make it easier for children to skip vaccines, according to a new study by Drexel University researchers.”

She linked to this article, detailing the anti-vaccine legislative history in New Jersey and lawmakers’ rationale, compared to the scientific literature.

I’m sad that there is such a fight against proven public health initiatives, and I’m sad that legislative bodies, who write our health and medical policies, include remarkably few clinicians.  But I’m most sad at the meanness in the fights.

A woman immediately commented, “Shut up already” on Dr. Chuang’s page.  When challenged benignly by others, she replied telling them to fuck off and calling them assholes.  Her page is apparently public, so I visited.  The posts that I could see were vehemently opposed to vaccines of all kinds, at least in 2016 and 2017.  She apparently lost a son this year, in his 24th year of life.  She has posted about eating healthy, self-care, and seeing intelligence as ‘not because you think you know everything without questioning, but rather because you question everything you think you know.”  So while I feel acutely put off and dismissive of her vile reaction to Dr. Chuang’s post, I also imagine that she and I may have things in common and might even be friends, if circumstances facilitated.

Somehow I came across another woman’s page tonight, similarly militantly anti-vaccine.  She and the first woman both posted a lot of memes and sayings implying that people who advocate for vaccines are brainwashed and ignorant, and not worthy of engagement.  Huh.  Sounds to me just like many of the ad hominems hurled by vaccine advocates against women like them.  It’s exhausting.  Who does it help, this mutual shit-flinging?  In Rising Strong, Brené Brown points out the pitfalls of false dichotomies and binary decision trees.  If you hear people shouting that you have to choose one side or another, that it’s all or nothing, be suspicious.  Look for the beneficiaries of that feud.  Often it’s the politicians who leverage our warring tendencies to stay in office.  Or maybe it’s physicians who, when they refuse to care for patients who decline vaccines, can feel decisively self-righteous rather than uncomfortably ambivalent.  Or maybe it’s the anti-vaccine parent, who feels embarrassed to express fear and uncertainty (because she has been shamed too many times for questioning a sanctimonious medical community), and so finds her voice in combative rage instead.  And could it be that anytime one of us shows up in attack mode, we incite our counterpart to take a mirroring stance, even if that was not their original intent (this is a rhetorical question)?

Regardless, I’m tired.  Social media and loud, mean, public debate are not venues that yield any meaningful interactions (I see the irony of my writing this on a blog).  It feels too slow, but experience teaches me that we win hearts and minds face to face, quietly, intimately.  Nothing good ever comes from a collision of two oncoming bullet trains.  It’s wildly destructive more than anything else.

Thankfully, my good friend posted Max Ehrmann’s poem “Desiderata” tonight.  I first read, transcribed, and posted this poem on my wall in high school, and have not seen it in a couple decades.  It really captures the essence of inner peace and right relationship, with self, humanity, and the earth, and it soothes me.  It’s a late Thursday night of another long week.  I leave you with Mr. Ehrmann’s master work below.  Good night.

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, Copyright 1952.

 

Talking to the Opposed About Vaccines

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NaBloPoMo 2018: What I’m Learning

Go figure, I’m having conversations about flu and vaccines every day right now.  Today I described my post from yesterday to a new friend.  He stands firmly in the ‘vaccines are good’ camp.  His sister, however, does not.  Her son has autism.  After hearing about my post, he asked me what I would say to her, if she told me she would not vaccinate her child ever again.  It was a great opportunity to think and practice, and I’m grateful that he asked.  I had already thought earlier today about writing a separate post on communication around vaccines.  So here goes!

First I would tell her that I understand why she would not want to vaccinate, if she blames vaccines for her son’s autism.  I don’t know any kids with autism, but I have friends whose kids are autistic, and I see how stressful and exhausting it can be.  As a mom of kids with anaphylactic food allergies, I also know the feeling of absolute guilt for being the one who gave my kids the things that made them sick.  If I were a mom whose kid was diagnosed with autism after receiving vaccines that I consented to, and I were convinced that the latter caused the former, I would definitely want to protect my kid from anything else that might hurt him, especially anything that I have control over.

Some additional background:  We are a lot better at recognizing and diagnosing autism spectrum conditions now than a few decades ago.  That diagnosis is commonly made in the toddler years, also around the time kids have received a boatload of vaccines.  So it’s easy to see a correlation, but causation cannot be proven.  One could argue that it also cannot be totally disproven, but given the number of children who receive all of their vaccines and the very small proportion of them all who go on to be diagnosed, the evidence definitely leans away from vaccines causing autism.  That is little comfort for a family and a child affected with the disorder, who may always wonder.  As humans, we naturally look to assign blame; vaccines are an easy target.  And why on earth would we repeat actions that have previously caused us trauma, real or perceived?

This year I read an article about a mom of three.   She had vaccinated her two elder children as per guidelines.  After her third was born, however, she started to read lay literature online stoking fear of vaccines.  She had no negative experiences herself, but started to wonder, what was really the best thing to do for her family?  She decided to stop vaccinating when her son was 6 months old.  At 18 months, he got pertussis, or whooping cough.  He almost died.  She posted videos of him coughing and turning blue, captioned with a heartfelt mea culpa, urging other parents to vaccinate:

“This is whooping cough,” she wrote. “This is Brody. An 18-month-old boy. Our third child. Our first son.

“This is a mother that sees ‘anti-vaxx’ all over social media and becomes terrified. Unsure whether or not to give vaccines (even though she did for both of her girls). Terrified to ‘pump her baby with poison’ … so she stops vaccinating after six months.”

“This is pure hell. This is guilt. Guilt of putting not only my son at risk, but my community too …This is embarrassment.”

She wanted to impress the fact that she’s not “bashing” the anti-vaxx community – or blaming or judging anyone.

“The decisions I made were MY decisions. Based purely on my lack of knowledge and fear,” she said.

“This is to show the consequences of not vaccinating my child correctly.”

I wonder about her conversations with her son’s doctors.  Did they try to shame her into vaccinating when she initially expressed a desire to stop?  If so, could this have just made her more resistant?  It could easily look something like a conversation that I would bet happened all over our country today:

Doctor:  Have you gotten your flu vaccine yet?

Patient: I don’t do flu vaccine.

Doctor: Seriously?  Why not?  It’s perfectly safe, you know, and tens of thousands of people die every year from flu.  If you don’t get vaccinated, you could pass it on to everybody you know.  Aren’t your parents elderly?  Don’t your kids have asthma?  You’re putting them at risk for serious illness or death, you know that, right?  And you don’t get flu from the vaccine, that is a total myth.  (Insert list of facts and evidence for benefits of flu vaccine here.)  Really, you should get it (suppressing eye roll).

Patient:  No, no thanks.  Can I go now?

I see and hear my colleagues complain all the time about vaccine-resistant patients.  When they are particularly tired or moody, they can get judgmental and even a little mean.  I understand.  It’s frustrating to watch people we care about making choices we think are against their best interests, especially when it also puts the community at risk.  I fear for my kids if their classmates are not vaccinated—both of my kids have asthma that’s triggered by respiratory infections.  Even if our whole family is vaccinated, they are still exposed to hundreds of snotty, sneezy, coughing faces every day at school.  Flu season is essentially six months long, most of it when we are all stuck inside basically slobbering all over one another.  High. Risk.

But does it really help for me to come at my patients with my ‘advice’ before I understand the origins of their decisions?  What are my assumptions about them when I do that?  Some patients claim science as the basis of their refusal; others admit that it’s totally irrational.  Regardless, how can I best conduct myself?  Here is my current approach:

Cheng: Do you do flu vaccine?

Patient: No, not really.

Cheng: Can we talk about that?

Patient: Do we have to?

Cheng: I would really appreciate it.  I won’t try to pressure you, I just want to understand your rationale.

Patient:  Gives their reasoning.  If it’s like my friend’s sister above, or I otherwise understand that they are resolute in opposition, I thank them for sharing, shift to strategies for illness and transmission prevention (see yesterday’s post), and ask permission to talk again next season.  This happens in a minority of cases, actually.  Most often they say something like, “Well, I just don’t really think about it, I feel like I don’t need it, I think it’s strange that it’s recommended every year, it doesn’t really seem to work from what I hear, and what’s the big deal about flu, anyway? …Do you really think I should get it?”

Cheng: Yes, I really recommend it.  Can I tell you why?

Patient: Okay, sure.

This is when I go through all the evidence that I reviewed yesterday and the rationale above.  If I know something meaningful to them that relates, I make sure to highlight the connection.  At the end I make sure to reiterate that they are free to vaccinate or not; I am honestly unwedded to a particular decision. I invite them to consider and let me know, or just show up to a pharmacy clinic if they decide to get it.  Most people are appreciative of the time spent; many say they learn something they did not previously know.  We end the conversation at least with no hard feelings, and often with positive ones (at least on my end).

It occurred to me this morning, what is my primary objective when I conduct these conversations this way, coming alongside my patients rather than coming at them?  Initially I thought it was to keep people healthy, to prevent death, serious illness, and suffering.  But now I think my primary objective is actually to cultivate our relationship.  I usually have this conversation with new patients, because if I know them already then I know their vaccine patterns and I don’t have to ask, “Do you do flu vaccine?”  If they refused last year I can simply start with, “Can we please talk about flu again?”  When we are new to each other, the way I present sets the tone for our relationship and has an outsize impact on patients’ receptivity to my advice.  The flu vaccine conversation is a prime opportunity to prove that I can listen to, empathize with, respect, and honor their values and autonomy.

On the contrary, when I come at them, bent on convincing them to vaccinate now, what is my primary objective?  Thinking of other times I present this way, if I’m being honest, I’m just trying to prove I’m right and win an argument.  I don’t think that approach has ever really helped anybody.

 

 

Living Large in Seventh Grade

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NaBloPoMo 2018: What I’m Learning

Did you know that Abraham Maslow never represented his hierarchy of needs as a pyramid?  I didn’t either!  To be clear, I have not read the paper I just linked; it was linked in a different article I read today, describing more about Maslow’s work than I have ever known before.  It’s in Scientific American, entitled, “What Does It Mean to be Self-Actualized in the 21st Century?” by Scott Barry Kaufman.

Especially later in his life, Maslow’s focus was much more on the paradoxical connections between self-actualization and self-transcendence, and the distinction between defense vs. growth motivation. Maslow’s emphasis was less on a rigid hierarchy of needs, and more on the notion that self-actualized people are motivated by health, growth, wholeness, integration, humanitarian purpose, and the “real problems of life.”

I was intrigued by this piece because I remember so clearly when I first learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy.  It was in seventh grade, and I can’t remember anymore the class or context.  I just recall that it made so much sense, and I felt such a swell of joy at the possibility that something so complex could be distilled and explained so simply.  It would have been fair to predict at that time that I would go on to become a psychologist.  The boy I had a crush on that year (and all through high school, actually) asked me where I saw myself on the pyramid.  I remember looking at the tiers and thinking, very clearly, oh, I’m at the top.  I felt a little sheepish, afraid I would be seen as bragging, but it was the honest answer, and I said so.  “Bullshit,” was his reply.  I can’t remember our verbal exchange thereafter, but I think I was able to convince him that I really felt like I was ‘there.’  And I left that encounter feeling both a bit more self-aware and also proud that I had stood my ground and defended a truth.  You could also have guessed I would later entertain a brief interest in law school.

Kaufman has revisited Maslow’s work, including his hierarchy of needs, and evaluated the components in the context of modern life.  Reassuringly, 10 of 17 of Maslow’s self-actualization characteristics still stand up to ‘scientific scrutiny,’ (not sure how he measured this).  He names the ten characteristics in the article, and you can ‘take the quiz’ to see how self-actualized you are today.  I love quizzes like this.  I have done the Myers-Briggs at least 5 times.  Others I love are Gregorc Mind Styles, Insights Discovery, and the Gallup Strengths Finder.  The most useful ones tell you what you already know about your strengths, and also offer advice and insights on how to manage your blind spots.

But the most interesting aspect of Kaufman’s article to me was Maslow’s interest in self-actualization and its relationship to self-transcendence.  We can understand self-actualization as ‘achieving one’s full potential’ and self-transcendence as ‘decreased self-salience and increased feelings of connectedness,’ (again, not read the paper; it’s linked in Kaufman’s article) or basically subsuming and/or integrating oneself within a greater whole.  At first you may think that these are mutually exclusive states of mind and being.  The coolest thing is that it’s not actually an either/or proposition; it is absolutely both/and:

While self-actualization showed zero relationship to decreased self-salience, self-actualization did show a strong positive correlation with increased feelings of oneness with the world.

Self-actualized people don’t sacrifice their potentialities in the service of others; rather, they use their full powers in the service of others (important distinction). You don’t have to choose either self-actualization or self-transcendence– the combination of both is essential to living a full and meaningful existence.

It reminds me of another subsection of Chapter 3 in Leading Change in Healthcare, wherein Suchman et al discuss holding the tension and balance between self-differentiation (clear sense of individuality) and attunement (deep awareness and acceptance of how we are connected and resonant with those around us).  It also reminds me of Brené Brown’s work on trust; she describes eloquently in Rising Strong how we can neither trust others nor be trustworthy ourselves without clarity and boundaries around who we are and our core values, and living in that integrity all of the time.

Once again, I find encouraging and validating evidence for something I really feel I have known since an early age:  We are all our best selves and our best communities not in competition, but in collaboration.   Cohesion in diversity weaves a stronger social fabric of connections, more flexible and elastic.  But that means we need to know exactly what we as individuals each bring to contribute.  Personal, intrinsic meaning and purpose are foundational for substantive interactions with others and resilient communal relationships.

Our world can meet each and every one of our physiologic, psychologic, and self-fulfillment needs—we can provide this for one another.  We can each strive for our own goals, alongside our peers, and still help each other on the rocky, uphill parts.  We really need to stop with the scarcity thinking and get on with the business of working together, maximizing each of our strengths, and making society better for all of us.

Onward.

Fear, Ego, and Control

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NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

In this post I will attempt to describe some exciting connections between readings from the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Anthony Suchman and colleagues, and Carol Dweck.

An HBR article landed in my inbox this week, catching my inner Imposter’s attention.  The title, “Ego is the Enemy of Good Leadership,” triggered my ‘Is that me?’ reflex.  Because much of the time, I think I’m a pretty good leader (“I’m awesome”).  But I’m forever fearful that my ego will get the best of me and make me exactly the kind of leader I loathe (“I suck”).  I saved the article to read later.

Meanwhile, I continued to Chapter 3 of Leading Change in Healthcare: Authentic, Affirmative, and Courageous Presence.  Basically this chapter deals with earning and building trust.  Chapter subsections include self-awareness, reflection, emotional self-management, clarifying one’s core beliefs, and accepting oneself and others.  In the part on core beliefs, the authors reference Dr. Suchman’s 2006 paper, “Control and relation: two foundational values and their consequences.”  In it, he differentiates between these two ‘foundational world views’:

Control

The beliefs, thoughts and behaviors of the control paradigm are organized around a single core value: that the ultimate state to which one can aspire is one of perfect willfulness and predictability. What one desires happens, with no surprises; all outcomes are intended. For the clinician, the control paradigm is expressed in the questions, ‘‘What do I want to happen here?’’ and ‘‘What’s wrong and how do I fix it?’’  Personal success or failure is judged by the clinical outcome, the extent to which one’s intended outcome was realized.

Relation

In the relation paradigm, the most valued state to which one aspires is one of connection and belonging. In this state, one has a feeling of being part of a larger whole – a team, a learning group, a dance troupe, a community, even the world itself. One’s individual actions seem spontaneously integrated with those of others to a remarkable degree, contributing to the evolution of a higher order process, i.e. one at a higher system level than that of the individuals of which it is comprised…  One asks the question, ‘‘What’s trying to happen here?’’ and, according to one’s best approximation of an answer, seeks to shape others and the world while also remaining open to being shaped oneself. This balance between control and receptivity puts one in the best possible position to recognize and make use of serendipitous events.

In Leading Change the authors write about control, “…This is a fear-based paradigm in which one trusts oneself more than others and holds tightly to power…  It predisposes leaders toward dominance, distracts them from cultivating relationships and leads them to set unrealistic expectations of control.”  And about relation, “This is a trust-based paradigm, anchored in the belief that the sources of order, goodness and meaning lie beyond one’s own creation…  It predisposes leaders to do their best in partnership with others, to attend to the process of relating and to personal experience (their own and others’) and to remain open to possibility.”

When I finally read the HBR article, the message about ego reflected the control paradigm:

Because our ego craves positive attention… when we’re a victim of our own need to be seen as great, we end up being led into making decisions that may be detrimental to ourselves, our people, and our organization.

When we believe we’re the sole architects of our success, we tend to be ruder, more selfish, and more likely to interrupt others. This is especially true in the face of setbacks and criticism. In this way, an inflated ego prevents us from learning from our mistakes and creates a defensive wall that makes it difficult to appreciate the rich lessons we glean from failure.

The ego always looks for information that confirms what it wants to believe [confirmation bias].  Because of this, we lose perspective and end up in a leadership bubble where we only see and hear what we want to. As a result, we lose touch with the people we lead, the culture we are a part of, and ultimately our clients and stakeholders.

Going to bed last night, I wondered, “Is Fear actually driving when we see Ego I charge?”  I think the answer is undoubtedly yes, but it’s more complex than that.  It’s not a fear that we feel consciously, or that we are even aware of.  It’s not sweaty palm, palpitative, panic attack fear.  Rather it’s a deep, visceral, existential fear—of being found out, of not being enough—akin to imposter syndrome, if not exactly that.  Control, Fear, Ego—they all seem lump-able with/in the Fixed mindset, as described by Carol Dweck.  The simplest example of this mindset is when we tell kids how smart they are, they then develop a need to appear smart, lest they lose their identifying label.  So they stop taking risks, trying new things, risking failure.  Their experiences narrow as they, often inadvertently, learn that control of outcome and outward appearance of competence is the primary objective of any endeavor.

Back in August I listened to Dweck’s book, having heard about it and already embraced its theory in the last few years.  I had already started making the connection between fear and fixed mindset, but this day I saw a sudden, reciprocal relationship between fixed mindset, confirmation bias, and imposter syndrome.  I love when these lightning bolt moments happen—I was in my car on the way to work, and this triad came to me.  As soon as I parked and turned off the car engine I tore into my bag for the journal I carry with me everywhere and scrawled the diagram as fast as I could.  It was as if the idea would evaporate if I didn’t get it down in ink.  Later I added the comparison to Growth mindset—holding space for learning, integration, and possibility.  I held it in mind for a while, and then forgot it (which is okay—that’s why I wrote it down!).  Then today, putting together this post in my head, I remembered it with excitement.

8-31 triad update

The point of it all is that we are at our best, both individually and as groups, when we are in right relationship with ourselves and one another.  It all starts with relationship with self.  If I live in fear of being found out as flawed or imperfect, then I project that fear onto others.  I act out in an effort to control how others perceive me—when in reality I have no control over that whatsoever.  The negative perception of my ‘Ego’ by others then provokes myriad responses including fear, insecurity, false deference, resentment, disloyalty, and subversion, and the team falls into disarray.  If, on the other hand, I cultivate self-love and connection with others, I never feel that I am going it alone.  I am an integral member of a high-functioning, mutually respectful team, one in which I can admit my weaknesses and maximize my strengths.  We all feel confident that we can handle whatever adversity comes our way, and we rise to each and every occasion.

I’m still putting it all together, working out how it translates into daily behaviors, actions, and decisions.  For now I’m definitely paying closer attention to my feelings, especially in conflict, and taking a lot more deep breaths before speaking or replying to triggering emails.  I ask a lot more clarifying questions.  I try to make the most generous assumptions about people’s intentions, and remember always that we are on the same team—Team Humanity.

More learning happening around the clock, I say!  Hoping to articulate better in the sharing hereafter…

What do you think about all of this, does it make any sense at all??

Humanity

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NaBloPoMo 2018: What I’m Learning

I have festered all day drafting this post in my head.  Procrastinating.  It’s still a jumble, so I’ll give it my best shot:

Donald Trump is a human being.  As much as I want to hurl epithets and lob rotten tomatoes at the television every time his face appears, or take a sledgehammer to whatever device I hear his voice on, I know these are unproductive responses to the emotions he triggers in me.  Breathe.  Must. Do. Better.

Ever since the 2016 campaign started in June of 2015, three and a half years ago already, I have felt an almost daily rage like nothing in my life yet.  I’m happy in some ways to report that it has not improved—I have not normalized this aberrancy of an administration.  But the constant animosity is not good for my health.  And the escalating divisions and vitriol between various groups of people, ever more visible on phone cameras and instant video, erodes our humanity every day.  I think I’m also increasingly sensitive to it all now.  On one hand I’m glad because awareness of humanity, and opposing those who diminish it, is good.  But again, it costs me.

Donald Trump is the personification of dehumanization (oh, the irony).  Some may feel this is an exaggeration, too strong a word to use.  It is not.  He is a hardened master of this insidious craft, and we are each capable of the same, whether we admit it or not.  It starts with making people abstractions—by seeing them, even very subtly, as less than whole people with feelings and needs equally important as our own.  Simon Sinek discusses it eloquently in his book Leaders Eat Last; you can read an iteration of his thoughts in this interview.  He describes CEOs like Jim Sinegal and Bob Chapman who, in hard times, gave employees raises and decreased workers’ hours, respectively, rather than laying anyone off.  I learned during a lecture, though I cannot find the citation (Boehm, 2015?) that only 17% of healthcare CEOs take the well-being of their employees into account when making decisions.  Sinegal and Chapman sacrificed some numbers to save people, Sinek says.  Too many leaders sacrifice people to save the numbers.  Turning people into abstractions is both akin to and a step toward dehumanizing them.

I have a friend who used to criticize people, ideas, or things by saying, “That’s (he’s) so gay.”  He would deny his negative attitude, deny that he was using ‘gay’ as a derogatory term.  He would also deny that he was biased against homosexuals.  I believe he would never treat anyone badly because they were gay, let alone commit any kind of hate crime.  But ‘being gay’ was a negative abstraction to him.  It was abnormal, something to be derided and shamed—to be scorned.  His objection to the idea of homosexuality made homosexuals, as a group in his mind, less than.  I think we all do this more often than we know.  I wrote about it last year, describing how doctors in different medical specialties talk about each other in pejorative stereotypes.  We dehumanize each other every damn day.

Brené Brown describes this clearly in her book Braving the Wildnerness:

Dehumanization has fueled innumerable acts of violence, human rights violations, war crimes, and genocides. It makes slavery, torture, and human trafficking possible. Dehumanizing others is the process by which we become accepting of violations against human nature, the human spirit, and, for many of us, violations against the central tenets of our faith.

How does this happen? Maiese explains that most of us believe that people’s basic human rights should not be violated—that crimes like murder, rape, and torture are wrong. Successful dehumanizing, however, creates moral exclusion. Groups targeted based on their identity—gender, ideology, skin color, ethnicity, religion, age—are depicted as “less than” or criminal or even evil. The targeted group eventually falls out of the scope of who is naturally protected by our moral code. This is moral exclusion, and dehumanization is at its core.

Dehumanizing always starts with language, often followed by images. We see this throughout history. During the Holocaust, Nazis described Jews as Untermenschen—subhuman. They called Jews rats and depicted them as disease-carrying rodents in everything from military pamphlets to children’s books. Hutus involved in the Rwanda genocide called Tutsis cockroaches. Indigenous people are often referred to as savages. Serbs called Bosnians aliens. Slave owners throughout history considered slaves subhuman animals.

Again, you may think that I over-exaggerate here.  What’s the big deal, you say, when surgeons say internists wear flea collars (stethoscopes)?  Or when Trump calls Mexicans criminals and rapists?  When he calls women dogs, Miss Piggy, and Horseface, you say, it has no real effect.  Sociology begs to differ.  It is a slippery slope from thoughts to words to action, and Donald Trump has poured oil on the Slip ‘n’ Slide by the bucketful.  Don’t believe me?  How else could we countenance forcibly separating toddlers from their parents when they arrive on our doorstep, fleeing violence and seeking asylum, sending the children across our country and deporting the parents, with no intention of ever reuniting them?  If that’s not dehumanization I don’t know what is.

Once again, Brené Brown says it much better than I:

Today we are edging closer and closer to a world where political and ideological discourse has become an exercise in dehumanization. And social media are the primary platforms for our dehumanizing behavior. On Twitter and Facebook we can rapidly push the people with whom we disagree into the dangerous territory of moral exclusion, with little to no accountability, and often in complete anonymity.

Here’s what I believe:

  1. When the president of the United States calls immigrants animals or talks about grabbing pussy, we should get chills down our spine and resistance flowing through our veins. When people call the president of the United States a pig, we should reject that language regardless of our politics and demand discourse that doesn’t make people subhuman.
  2. If you are offended or hurt when you hear Hillary Clinton or Maxine Waters called bitch, whore, or the c-word, you should be equally offended and hurt when you hear those same words used to describe Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway, or Theresa May.
  3. If you’re offended by a meme of Trump Photoshopped to look like Hitler, then you shouldn’t have Obama Photoshopped to look like the Joker on your Facebook feed.
  4. When we hear people referred to as animals or aliens, we should immediately wonder, “Is this an attempt to reduce someone’s humanity so we can get away with hurting them or denying them basic human rights?”

When we engage in dehumanizing rhetoric or promote dehumanizing images, we diminish our own humanity in the process. When we reduce immigrants to animals… it says nothing at all about the people we’re attacking. It does, however, say volumes about who we are and our integrity.

Dehumanizing and holding people accountable are mutually exclusive. Humiliation and dehumanizing are not accountability or social justice tools, they’re emotional off-loading at best, emotional self-indulgence at worst. And if our faith asks us to find the face of God in everyone we meet, that should include the politicians, media, and strangers on Twitter with whom we most violently disagree. When we desecrate their divinity, we desecrate our own, and we betray our humanity.

So I resolve to stop participating in the erosion of humanity.  When I hear dehumanizing language from anywhere, especially among my own tribes, I must resist the urge to respond in kind.  I will look for opportunities to call it out.  It is so damn hard, I feel so often like a pressure cooker waiting for the valve to release.  So I must practice patience, kindness, mindfulness, deep breathing, and all of the habits I reviewed here yesterday.  I must find it in myself to always hold another’s humanity as sacred as my own, even (especially?) the people I despise the most.  It will be a lifelong exercise in discipline and agape love.  As the Obamas teach us, we must stay Fired Up, Go High, and Be the Change.  I can do this.  Donald Trump is a human being.

Perspective Taking

Born a Crime

NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

I’m thinking a lot about empathy lately.  I am less cynical today than I might have been a few months ago, maybe.  I have uttered the words, “People suck” more this year than any other year in my life, perhaps.  But maybe writing about things I’m for rather than things I’m against, or reflecting on things I have learned and am learning, and from whom I’m learning them, has given me some hope.

Another person who gives me hope is Trevor Noah.  I mentioned in the first post of this month that I listened to his book, Born A Crime.  He really is an impressive and worldly young man, and I look forward to following his career and life for a while yet.

The best part about the book is the accents and impressions that Trevor does throughout his reading.  I have not actually read the book, but I am sure that hearing it on Audible is much, much better.  The second best part about the book is the actual book.  It’s a memoir, you must hear it!  In a series of non-chronological and yet expertly woven stories, he describes his childhood and adolescence in South Africa, son of a black Xhosa mother and white Swiss-German father.  Apartheid, outright racism, family conflict, domestic abuse and violence, crime, he lived it all.  Any of it would have probably killed me—jumping out of moving cars, for instance.  But he tells it both matter-of-factly, and with tremendous love.  I don’t mean that he loved all the terrible things that happened to him; rather I feel he has a deep and abiding love of humanity.  He accepts that it all happened and made him who he is today; I hear no resentment or bitterness.  He especially reveres his mother, and rightly so, she is a total Badass Mama Goddess.  I won’t give any of it away, you just gotta hear the book, she is UH-MAZING.  She is the best part of the book.

No, actually, the best part of the book is Noah’s ability to convey his understanding of everybody’s perspective in his life.  He translates for us the mindset of his independent mother, his stoic father, his wise grandmother, his friends from various, sometimes opposing, ethnic groups, and his hotheaded stepfather, among others.  At the same time he describes unbelievable atrocities committed by others, he does not vilify them.  There is never a hint of victimhood in a life story full of loss, poverty, and violence.  Hearing his perspective, and then his explanations of various other people’s perspectives, I was reminded that everybody’s point of view is shaped by so many things that I cannot possibly know even a part of it.  Every single human is a product and a manifestation of all of their genes, environment, experiences, and influences.  Every single one of us is unique.  And yet, most of the time, I make assumptions about what other people think, how they feel, what must motivate them, as if I know.  I think we all do this more than we’d like to admit.  I just wrote yesterday about how we humans have the capacity to relate, despite our disparate experiences.  Today I consider the flip side of that, which is ‘othering’ people by ignoring shared humanity, denying that capacity, repressing it.

Trevor Noah practices perspective taking as a routine.  I think that’s what makes him such a gifted comedian.  Comedy shows us our foibles so we might reflect but not so much that we feel shame.  He did this beautifully recently speaking about the migrant caravan from Honduras:

I’ve noticed other news networks in America specifically seem to focus on what the caravan means for America, and less on what the caravan means to the people in the caravan. 

He recalls growing up in South Africa, seeing news about Zimbabwe during the worst times of Robert Mugabe’s rule.  South Africans understood why Zimbabweans were leaving the country and coming to South Africa.  They may or may not have wanted them to come, but they nevertheless related to the motivations for migration.  He contrasts this with how Central American migrants are painted as threatening criminals, coming to pillage and plunder America.  This prevents us from acknowledging our shared humanity, from seeing ourselves in those around us.  It divides us unnecessarily and to the detriment of us all.

I have done a poor job explaining Trevor Noah’s comedic and humanitarian genius.  But seriously, just read (no, listen to!) his book, and watch his Between the Scenes videos on Facebook.  They are uplifting and fun.

Good night!