Love Letter to My Superstar Friends

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Dear Paul & Joanne*,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely and with love,

Cathy

 

*Not their real names

To Train Or Not To Train

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOWEVER:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have picked up some tips along the way:

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

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

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

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

We all need that.

Two Buttock Riding

 

Continued from last week…

My objective for the coaching session was to figure out where I really want to put my energy for the foreseeable future.  I felt essentially torn between my paraprofessional activities (writing and speaking on physician health, patient-physician relationship, bridging silos in medicine) and my nascent political activism (community involvement, calling and writing to Congress, thinking of running for office someday??).  It felt like I should choose, and yet something told me they could be integrated.

Highlights from the call:

What is your goal for the end of this session?

Clarity and direction; movement.  Readiness to act.

How close are you already?

85-90%

How will you know when you have it?

Hard to describe…  It will be a dual certainty, like choosing furniture, knowing whether I like a person: cognitive and visceral.  It will feel decisive.

How are you feeling now?

Overwhelmed, distracted.  [Recall Doug the dog, in the movie, “Up”—Squirrel!]  OMG there is too much to keep up with: Healthcare, Russia, immigration, refugees, border security, Russia, EPA, what-the-hell-did-he-just-say-and-what-the-hell-does-that-mean?, racism, misogyny, intolerance, Russia, free speech, NIH funding, science, climate change, women’s rights, the Persisterhood, congressional seats up for grabs across the country, and oh yeah, the rest of my actual life.  Every day five new things to look up, articles on both left and right to compare notes, filtering facts from spin, trying to stake independent and educated positions backed by evidence!  GAAAAHH!

What would happen if you didn’t do that?

I do what do, spend hours a day reading and trying to engage in discussion (in person and on social media), in order to be credible in my conversations, to engage from a place deeper than superficial rhetoric or simple emotional reactivity.  My big fear: If I don’t do it, I will become one of those loud-mouthed, uninformed ranters who has no evidence for my broad-brush, oversimplified generalizations and ad hominem attacks.

What is the 98% truth about that?

Not likely to happen.  That’s just not me, I don’t do that.  I always look for evidence to back up what I say, and when I don’t have it, I own up.  If I don’t know what I’m talking about, I listen more and ask more questions, or I don’t engage until I have something useful to contribute.

And the 2% truth?

There is still a risk.  I may spew sometimes—when I get triggered and e(motionally)-hijacked.  I feel particularly susceptible right now, with all of my core values and our generation’s social progress seemingly under attack.

AND, I never live here.  I may wallow a few days (1-2 weeks, max), stewing in cynicism and resentment.  But I always rise up, usually with the help of others, with writing, and with time.  I always come out having learned something, and resolving to apply the learning (usually about myself and my relationships) to whatever comes next.

***

Insights gained:

I’m okay.

In reviewing my time spent on my screens each day, I realize most of it edifies me and connects my mental dots of current events, social science, and personal meaning.  I know not to spend time on baseless rants and otherwise rhetorical opinion pieces.  I choose articles with links to data, history, and primary sources, and ones that challenge my thinking or oppose my positions (sometimes).  I look for nuance, complexity, examples of collaboration and compassionate leadership.  This is what I spend my time and energy on; it broadens my perspectives and integrates the knowledge and ideas I already have.  It fosters my own creativity and philosophy.  This is who I am.

It’s the blog.

This is what I want to spend my energy on.  It’s my platform, my thing.  All the paraprofessional stuff I do was born of this: What gives doctors meaning is the relationships we get in our work—mostly with patients, but also with one another and society at large—status, respect, contribution.  Physician, wellness/resilience, the intersection of health and leadership, bridging silos (physicians, nurses, pharmacists, insurers, hospital administrators)—it’s all about relationships.  And, so is politics.

Therefore, I will use this blog for all of it. I can share my letters to Congress.  I can continue to write about physician-patient relationship.  I know I have written about this before, but somehow it required some reinforcement:  It’s all connected, and it’s all me.

FEAR.

Of course, that’s what really holds me back (yup, written about that before, too).  Fear of attack, rejection, overwhelming engagement obligation and getting sucked into negative, counterproductive exchanges with strangers.  Fear that I have nothing useful to say.  Someone else has already said it better and reached more people.  Who am I to think that my words matter?  It’s all so paralyzing.

I got this.  

I’m ready.  It’s time.  Because: Nothing I say or write, at work or on Facebook or anywhere, is anything I would not say or write in public.  Integrity is important to me—to be the same person in private that I am in public.  I’ve been practicing, and getting better, as evidenced by the civil exchanges I facilitate on my Facebook page (which I will also share more of), bringing together friends from different walks of life in meaningful conversation.  We exchange important ideas, always concluding cordially, all relationships intact and even, I daresay, strengthened.

And, my blog is my space.  I get to manage who comes on (into my house), and I make the rules for how we engage (no poop flinging).  I don’t comment on public sites like Washington Post or New York Times, or large Facebook groups (usually) because that is like leaping into a flash mob of the worst kind.  There is no meaningful exchange or benefit for anyone.  Here, threads can be more personal, meaningful, and transformative.

***

New Goals:

Shift the Boundaries.

I can push my fearful limits and present myself more confidently to the world.  I can choose to plant more color and texture in my front yard.  I can also dig it up and throw it out if I realize it clashes with the house.  It’s all good.  And I must also mind the costs, especially to my family.  So, I can bring them closer by putting the screens out of arms’ reach when I’m with them.  Easier said than done, and definitely worth the effort.

Focus on the WHY.

It’s all about cultivating productive, contributory relationships–first with myself, then with others, and then between all of us, for more peace, love, and joy for us all.

Publish Weekly.

If this is where I want to put my energy, then I want to have something to show for it.  Plus, it’s therapeutic.  Writing calms me, which I need now more than ever, as you can see.  For now I can stop chasing conference presentations, formal leadership roles, Daily Actions to prove I am an engaged citizen.  I can simply write when I am moved—and I am always moved—and share it here.

See you next week!

 

One Cheek in the Saddle

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Hello friends!  I live!

The blog is now two years old (celebratory post forthcoming).  Looking back, I have strayed often from the declared theme of patient-physician relationship and communication.  I have yet to figure out my optimum writing practice and discipline.  And every day the thing I long for most is to write for fun!  *sigh* Life.

If my world were a horse, happily trotting along a winding dirt trail in the Rockies, oblivious to my riding its back, then I would have fallen off multiple times from confusion, inexperience, fear, overreaction, awe, inattention, and impulse.  Sometimes I roll a ways down the hill, too.  The past two months or so have seen all of these and more.  Thankfully, as dust-covered and disoriented as I stand at times, the horse always allows me to remount.  At this point I’m about halfway back in the saddle again—one cheek on.  The next few posts will document my return to two-buttock riding.

***

So much inner work done to date, and so much yet to do!  And I am infinitely grateful for the dense, strong, and unfailing network of support that surrounds me.  2017 could be my most productive and effective year yet, and I need help organizing.  So a couple weeks ago, I scheduled a session with my life coach of 12 years.

Her pre-call questions for me, and my spontaneous answers:

What do I want more of?

Connection, understanding, civil discourse.

To see people being kind to one another.

For people to truly listen to one another and try to understand each other’s points of view.

For us all to hold our shared humanity above all else, and see one another as fellow humans, all trying to make our way through an uncertain life.

Inner Peace.

Time outside, preferably in Colorado, in the mountains, but pretty much anywhere is good.

To write with purpose, discipline, and impact.

Integration—of everything I do, even the small things—for my Why to show up everywhere I go, with everybody I meet, most of all with my kids—to model the Why for them, in person and out loud.

To read primary literature, writings of the great thinkers and contemplatives, past and present.

Discernment—what is worth my time, contributes to my purpose, vs. what detracts from it?

Focus on what I’m for, rather than what I’m against.

Focus in general—to channel my energy to activities that align most with my central mission.  See Distraction below.

 

What do I want less of?

Rage and seething.

Repression of rage and seething.

Time wasted for lack of discernment.

Distraction.  I feel like Doug, the dog from the movie “Up”—Squirrel!  It all matters, but I cannot do everything at the same time.

 

What thoughts are uppermost in my mind these days?

The daily shit show that is our government and how it vexes me (see above, rage and seething)—sooo many squirrels.

I need to do something useful, to help, to contribute.

We are all in this together, we have to get through it together.

This is a test.  We can pass, and with flying colors, and only if we work together.

Every time I get angry, sarcastic, etc., I contribute to the negativity and morass.  I need to be better.

Why have I so much trouble walking the talk?  Why have I not achieved inner peace althef*ingready?

 

I present thusly to my trusted coach. The process always brings new insights, connections, and openings of mind and heart.  I plan to emerge on the other side of 60 minutes with increased clarity, confidence, and drive.  I’ll let you know! 😉

Oh yeah, and the Rules of Engagement also live, just taking an unplanned hiatus.  More of those to come, also.  Like I said, I’m only one cheek back on right now. 😉

 

 

Sharing an Emotional Request

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Exploring the Rules of Engagement for Healthier Political Discourse, Third Query.

I’m still working on how to balance it all.  Every day I wake up and before long I feel tense, asking myself, “What can I do today to make a positive difference to our country?  How can I make my voice, calling for collaboration and connection, heard?”  It’s a struggle to extricate myself from that, and be present to work, family, chores, etc.

But I think I’m doing better.  Every day I feel an urge to write.  I have ordered postcards with the Healing Through Connection photo, title, and URL, to write to Congress.  I figure, if I’m going to write to them, they might as well know who I am and what I stand for (which, I hope, this blog makes pretty clear).

I’m never sure how effective it is to send emails via senators’ and representatives’ web pages, does anyone know?  Well anyway, it probably can’t hurt, and it makes me feel better that I’m doing something.  Today I started with my US representative, writing about Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest and ties to Russia.  I then copied, pasted, and edited to send to each of my senators.  I noticed that each time I revised, I added a sentence or two that brought my personal perspective on government into clearer relief.  It’s not just about policy.  It’s about how policy gets negotiated–which is about communication and relationships.  Finally, I wrote to Senator John McCain, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  The letter is below.  Ironically, I forgot to include the link to this blog.  But that’s okay, I’ll probably write him again soon.

I’m pretty proud of this letter (email).  I think it’s respectful and validating, while also challenging.  I tried to imagine Senator McCain actually reading it.  I want him to feel seen–to understand that though I am not his constituent or a member of his party, I still appreciate him as a person.  We are all in this together, and I want him to feel supported by people ‘on the other side.’  I want to embolden any part of him that wishes to make an emotional appeal to his colleagues.  Whenever we see the word ’emotional’ we immediately, subconsciously, also think ‘hysterical.’  They are far from synonymous, and I want to take that stigma away.

Two articles I read this week support my conviction for taking an emotional/limbic approach to political conversations.  The first was a detailed piece in The New Yorker that describes the science behind why facts don’t change our minds.  Second was an October article in the Harvard Business Review on how to engage and make it safe for people (Trump supporters in particular) to change their minds and positions.  It does not specifically reference the Harvard Negotiation Project, but it reminds me in many ways of the book Getting to Yes, written by HNP founders William Ury and Roger Fisher.  I plan to write more about principles from this book in the coming weeks.  I have listened to it again since the election, and it helps ground me.

I thought about sharing my letter on one of the many secret, liberal groups on Facebook, and/or on my personal page.  But somehow it felt more appropriate to share here.  I am aware that this makes me vulnerable to public attacks on my politics and positions.  With engagement comes risks, so boundaries are in order.  My boundaries here are the same as on Facebook:

  1. No ad hominem.
  2. Keep your comments respectful and civil.
  3. Read the entire post before commenting.
  4. I reserve the right to remove comments that violate the requests above.  Commenting on this blog is like coming into my home and talking to me.  I would not allow you to fling fecal words in my home, at me or my other guests, and the same principle applies here.

What do you think?

*** *** ***

Dear Senator McCain,

Thank you for your decades of service to our country.

I am a liberal independent from Chicago, a woman, a daughter of immigrants, and a physician.

I remember the 2008 campaign and how you treated Barack Obama with respect and professionalism.  I remember how you corrected the woman at a debate when she claimed he was an Arab.  You made a deep impression on me that night, for manifesting integrity with unwavering conviction.  I see you doing it again now, as we face the profoundly alarming and appalling existential threat of the new administration.

I write today to request that you consider how best to use your influence and credibility, with your longstanding tenure in the military and the Senate, to encourage and empower your colleagues, especially those on the right, to stand up for the conscience of the nation.  We need a comprehensive, bi-partisan investigation into Donald Trump’s many conflicts, and especially those with Russia. I know you already support this.

I have no idea what it must be like in your work.  But as a primary care physician, I talk to people for a living, trying to help them change their behavior to more closely align with their long term health goals.  It takes kindness, persistence, patience, presence, and trust.  Simply arguing facts and positions does not work.  We need to appeal to people’s emotions–to their deeply held (and perhaps forgotten or buried?) values of integrity, responsibility, accountability, and conscience.  We humans are emotional decision-makers, though we think ourselves so rational.  Research tells us that much of the time, we simply rationalize.  Thus, to change people’s behavior, we need to shed emotional light, with compassion and empathy, on the discrepancies between their actions and their integrity.  And we need to make it safe for them to admit to those discrepancies, rather than shame them for it.  Only then will they, slowly, make meaningful change.

I imagine that over the years, you have cultivated the relationships with your colleagues that paved the way for the important conversations that must happen now.  Please, for all our sakes, engage with your colleagues around your common humanity and shared mission of protecting our democracy, and of showing the world that our government is one of integrity.

Thank you, and best wishes to you and your family.

Sincerely,

Catherine Cheng, MD FACP

 

Is it Blog-Worthy? Also: Get Both Sides of the Story.

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Exploring the Rules of Engagement for Healthier Political Discourse, Second Query

Another RoE I have adopted lately is Do It In Person.  I’m still waiting for my conservative friends across town to take me up on my offer, and I’m extending invitations to other conservative friends to “talk” over coffee.  In December I signed up on Hi From The Other Side, a site that matches people from divergent political persuasions to meet locally and talk about it!  I’m still waiting for a match…

In the meantime, I’m still posting stuff on Facebook.  I’m exercising more discipline, though–sharing less impulsively, and taking time to add an interpretive (and hopefully thought-provoking) preamble, rather than hitting “Share now” all the time.  And I make sure to request of my friends often:

  1. Read the entire article before commenting.
  2. No ad hominem (learned this from Fr. James Martin)
  3. Keep it civil and respectful; I reserve the right to remove any and all shitty comments.

Tonight I worked on a post for a long time, looking up articles and comparing perspectives.  It turned out how I wanted it–biased and also a good attempt at objectivity, overall positive in tone.  Since I have allowed myself to write about politics on this blog, I wondered if this FB post would be worthy to publish here?

I generally consider blog posts to be more thoughtful and deliberate than Facebook posts.  But then, this FB post was both of those things.

So I ask you, my readers and fellow bloggers: Is the piece below worthy of this blog?  If so, maybe I can consolidate some work in the future!

Thank you in advance for your kind feedback!

********

This is interesting.

Fox News is saying that the left is organizing to disrupt and bully at Republican town halls. I lost the link to the video, but here is an article that basically says the same thing.

Here is the document they reference, from the Indivisible group.

The Fox and NY Post reports make it sound like Organizing for Action is staging a series of coups at Republican town halls only to disrupt (and presumably not to address concerns that have meaning to people).
The left says it’s taking pages from the Tea Party playbook.

So I Googled ‘tea party protest strategy’ and got a page full of references…

I opened this one first, from August, 2009.

It mentions a Tea party strategy memo, but the link does not work.

But it does include: “The memo, authored by Robert MacGuffie, who runs the website rightprinciples.com [apparently defunct now, from what I can tell], suggests that tea partiers should ‘pack the hall… spread out’ to make their numbers seem more significant, and to ‘rock-the-boat early in the Rep’s presentation…to yell out and challenge the Rep’s statements early…. to rattle him, get him off his prepared script and agenda…stand up and shout and sit right back down.'”

Then I opened the Wikipedia page on Tea Party Protests.

Under the ‘Tactics’ section:

“Some Tea Party organizers have stated that they look to leftist Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals for inspiration. Protesters have also appropriated left-wing imagery; the logo for the March 9/12 on Washington featured a raised fist design that was intended to resemble those used by the pro-labor, anti-war, and black power movements of the 1960s. In addition, the slogan ‘Keep Your Laws Off My Body’, usually associated with pro-choice activists, has been seen on signs at tea parties.[129]”

Of note, in the Indivisible instructional document, it does say to spread out to make it seem like there is more widespread consensus in the room. It does say to enter quietly and NOT be disruptive, and wait until the floor is opened to questions, so that you are more likely to have a chance to speak. It does say to be respectful, polite, and persistent. It does say to make your comments specific to, and to briefly summarize, a particular issue or piece of legislation, because there are so many bills that not all legislators will know all of them (which I thought was both practical and thoughtful). It does say to ask a specific but open-ended question, such as “What will you do about…” instead of yes-no questions.

So, it looks like these strategies get traded one side of the aisle/spectrum to the other, but each tries to blame the other for being disruptive and disrespectful.

I am so glad I took the time to see what ‘the other side’ is saying. It does not surprise me that they would see the same words I see and interpret them very differently. And, with just a little digging, I was able to see that none of this is new–these tactics have been in use for decades if not longer (maybe all of you knew this, but as my political interest has only skyrocketed recently, I’m still on the steep part of the learning curve).

So let’s not be so quick to judge and vilify, eh?  We are all just trying to get seen, heard, understood, and accepted.  And when I write ‘all’ I mean we *all*–left, right, up, down, gay, straight, male, female, child, adult–ALL of us!!

If we want ‘the others’ to listen, shouldn’t we *all* try to lead by example and listen well first ourselves?

Train to Withstand the Discomfort

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Exploring the Rules of Engagement for Healthier Political Discourse, First Query

How fascinating!  I thought this series would be so easy to write…  I spend so many hours every day deliberating on how to talk to people, fantasizing about successful encounters, and preparing mindful defenses against verbal attacks.  Yet crickets have chirped here for two weeks, and even now as I type, I feel almost overcome with apprehension.

The Better Part of Valor…

I had this lofty goal last month to seek out and engage in person, all of my friends on ‘the other side.’  I even sent a card to a couple of them on the other side of town, asking if I could come to visit and “talk.”  I feel an urgency to reconcile and reconnect.  But today I realize that you can’t force it.  Sometimes it’s just too uncomfortable.  You never know what the other person will say, or what you will say, that will trigger one or both of you and emotionally hijack the whole encounter.  So sometimes it’s best to just not go there.

Meanwhile, Back At the Ranch

But what can we do in the meantime?  How can we train now, to make it easier in the future?  It seems somewhat like exercise to me.  There is an app called TRX Force (I have no interests in this business), a twelve week progressive strength and interval training program using those torturous straps that hang from the ceiling.  When I first started the program with my trainer, I dreaded every session.  The shortness of breath, the shaking, the pain, gaaaagh!!  Every session early on, I secretly hoped she would let me off the hook.  But I also knew that with her support, I could overcome the discomfort and finish.  I have gotten through every session, some more easily than others.  Last Tuesday was Day 2 of Week 11. I felt so much weaker and less motivated than usual that day (all this stress, grrrr), and it was the hardest workout yet.  The ‘during’ part SUCKED.  My biceps and quads felt like jell-o melting off of their bones.  Then afterward, the victory of accomplishment filled me with pride.  It lit a new intrinsic fire, and my home workouts now are harder and longer than ever before.

Maybe it’s the same for talking politics.  Just thinking of encounters with ‘the other side’ can fill us with dread and tension.  We catastrophize immediately, not only about what they might say, but at how it might unleash torrents of our least controllable emotions.  So we instinctively run the other way.  What if we could train to withstand this discomfort?  What if we could find a safe space to practice, so we might feel stronger when challenged for real?  I propose two methods here.

Desensitize

We all know the satisfaction and comfort of echo chambers.  Seeing, hearing, and reading that which validates our existing positions feels so good.  But the farther we regress here, the harder it becomes to tolerate a dissenting view.  We must resist this temptation; we are called to be more disciplined than this.  I have friends and family who post articles and videos from sights like Conservative Fighter and Red State.  I find the headlines inflammatory, and my initial reaction is to cringe, dismiss, and move on.

Lately I have resolved to open at least one of these posts every few days.  To walk the talk of reaching across the divide, I must try seeing from others’ point of view.  These are my friends, people I grew up with, my colleagues.  What about these stories and articles appeals to them?  In the privacy of my home, at times of my choosing, I can practice opening my mind to a potential partial truth from any source.  I learned from life coaching a long time ago that, “we are all right, and only partially.”

In no way does opening my mind to possible other truths mean that I abandon skepticism or critical appraisal.  It does mean, however, that I practice excluding prejudice.  It means looking and listening with objectivity as much as possible.  “I have to pace myself,” a friend told me recently.  Yes.

In a recent episode of Bill Maher’s show, he interviewed the controversial alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos, during which he admonishes his audience, “Don’t take the bait, liberals.”  I think I agree.  The goal here is eventually to rise above the reflexive, emotionally hijacked state.  When I feel my brow furrow, lips curl, heart rate accelerate,  and armpits sweat, I know I’m close to my limits.  I can choose to disengage and try again next time.  Just like with TRX Force, my tolerance and openness core will strengthen the longer I stick with the program.  I can then engage with an intact and rational intellect, guided by my core values of connection and shared humanity, seeking common interests and goals.

Uphold the Devil’s Advocate

Since the election, I often feel attacked by people on ‘my side’ whenever I suggest that ‘the others’ may not all be racist and misogynist xenophobes.  It’s not safe in some of my own circles to consider the humanity of the other side.  This refusal to consider multiple points of view, even among those who mostly agree with us, seriously threatens our capacity for meaningful discourse, from the inside out.  The echo chambers reverberate ever louder, drowning out our intellectual and emotional calling for generosity and connection.  Us vs. Them group-think oppresses, and it’s dangerous to our dialogue.  I wonder if moderates on the right also experience this.

Hereafter, I resolve to stand up a little taller in defense of people in general.  When I hear broad brush generalizations, I will play Devil’s Advocate and speak up for a valid alternative point of view.  I will ask questions starting with phrases like, “What if they also…” and “What is a more generous assumption we can make about…”  I hope more of us can practice holding this precious space.  Making room for another’s point of view does not weaken our own.  Respectful debate of dissenting opinions makes us more agile and articulate.  And the best place to practice is first within our own tribes.

Moving Forward

I had a list of ideals for this series, like “Rehumanize the ‘Others’” “Mind your limits,” and “Stay in Curiosity.”  It’s hard to separate and prioritize them; as I think of any one, the others inevitably intertwine.  So it will take me a while between posts to disentangle my thoughts.  Thank you for your patience and your feedback.  Maybe we can all be training buddies on this long journey.