Cultural Perpetuity

What kind culture do you wish to perpetuate?  What specific actions, policies, behaviors, and outcomes would it manifest?

I learned the term ‘cultural perpetuity’ this past week, from a thought-provoking article on how Maslow’s Hierarchy was influenced by and also misrepresented Blackfeet Nation teachings:

  1. Self-actualization. Where Maslow’s hierarchy ends with self-actualization, the Blackfoot model begins here. In their view, we are each born into the world as a spark of divinity, with a great purpose embedded in us. That means that we arrive on earth self-actualized.
  2. Belonging. After we’re born, imbued with a divine purpose, the tribe is there to love and care for us.
  3. Basic Needs & Safety. While in Maslow’s model, we find love and belonging only after attending to our basic needs and safety, the Blackfoot model describes that our tribe or community is the means through which we are fed, housed, clothed, and protected. The tribe knows how to survive on the land and uses that knowledge and skill to care for us.
  4. Community Actualization. In tending to our basic needs and safety, the tribe equips us to manifest our sacred purpose, designing a model of education that supports us in expressing our gifts. Community actualization describes the Blackfoot goal that each member of the tribe manifest their purpose and have their basic needs met.
  5. Cultural Perpetuity. Each member of the tribe will one day be gone. So passing on their knowledge of how to achieve community actualization and harmony with the land and other peoples gives rise to an endurance of the Blackfoot way of life, or cultural perpetuity.

I also listened this week to the Building an Anti-Racist Workplace episode of Adam Grant’s podcast WorkLife.  It’s an insightful, enlightening, and empowering interview with John Amaechi, whose work I will now explore further.  In their discussion on allyship, Amaechi points out that we upstand against racism and sexism not just to help our individual friends or coworkers, but because we uphold certain core values.  Thus, we speak and stand up to defend and disseminate a certain culture—to perpetuate it:

Adam Grant (21:43):
I wanna talk a little bit about sort of the- the ally perspective here. Just thinking about my own failures in anti-racism and other people who I know, recognize the problems and care about the problems, but haven’t done much about them, I keep coming back to this literature on psychological standing.That sense that, you know, it’s- it’s not my place, it’s not legitimate for me to speak up because I’m white. What are your thoughts on overcoming it and getting those people who are by-standing for those kinds of reasons on board?

John Amaechi (22:13):
There’s a couple of things that I’m trying to do. One of them is to stop the alignment of allyship with black people as individuals and start the alignment of allyship with their own principles or with their organization’s values. So racism is an incivility. Sexism is an incivility. I do not require sisters nor a mother, nor a wife to be against sexism and misogyny because it is an incivility. If I’d intervene on something that’s racist, it’s not on my behalf or another one of my black colleagues. It’s because it’s an incivility against the values that people say they share. Today it’s not about an individual. It’s about standing up for your values and understand that you don’t need to have a black person in your team for that to be important because the presence of a black person has never been required for racism to occur. The presence of a woman has never been required for sexism to occur. As men, we know that the absence of woman reveals sexism and misogyny.

What culture do you lead?

In my role as interim clinical director of a small practice, I see myself as a steward.  My best contribution to most places I inhabit is to highlight and foster relationship and connection.  At work, this manifests as effective teamwork, high engagement, and positive morale.  Last year as we recruited for a new medical assistant (MA), I got to listen on the phone as our current MAs interviewed a candidate.  Through my own questioning, the candidate’s responses were short and sedate.  Then each MA on the team met with her, describing with energy and conviction how they live out our core values of collaboration and accountability, as well as our mission of providing compassionate, holistic patient care.  With each encounter, I heard the candidate’s responses lengthen and deepen.  I heard her own energy and engagement rise to match that of the team.  It was one of my proudest moments as director—I could see (hear) and feel how far our culture of connection has come, and how it could persist after I pass the baton to the next director.

What is the dominant (perpetual) culture in America?

Do not underestimate the complexity of this question, and its profound implications.  The first answer is, of course, it depends whom you ask.

For far too many, the dominant American culture is white male supremacy.  For the past year, I myself find it inescapable.  Increasingly, every time I consider what to post to this blog, or jeez, every day and in almost every domain, the primacy of white men pervades my consciousness like smog on a hot, humid day.  Let me be clear:  White men are not each and all bad; I do not assume every one is a racist sexist, even the actual assholes.  But whenever American systems are examined, we find that they are primarily designed, favored, empowered, and perpetuated by and for white males—it’s baked into our societal structures, hence the terms ‘systemic’ and ‘structural’ racism and sexism.  If you are a white male, it may be hard for you to see the barriers that have not impeded your life journey (Amaechi discusses this in the podcast as well).  You may have answered that dominant American culture is one of success with hard work, of equal opportunity, and of individual freedom.  Of course that is a culture we’d all love to perpetuate.  How could we achieve it for everybody?

What culture do you work to perpetuate?

I think it’s about the values and commitments we hold highest and manifest most in our daily activities.  What do our daily encounters say about our priorities?  What do we want more of, and thus work for every day, for ourselves, our friends, our colleagues, patients, parents, and children?  I want mutual respect and unqualified acceptance.  I want sincere valuation of diversity and real, wholehearted inclusion and integration of that diversity—of thought, experience, wisdom, and perspective—into a coherent, synergistic mosaic of strengths, engaged in service of elevating every individual to their highest potential.  I want to perpetuate a learning culture, one that operates with a growth mindset, founded on kindness, generosity, humility, curiosity, and resilience. 

None of this happens automatically; even well-established gardens of inclusive culture require regular tending.  I have to renew my commitment every day, in every encounter.  I fall down regularly.  And I give thanks every day for loving companions who help me up.  I try also to appreciate the challengers, to see them as allies rather than enemies or hindrances.  That is walking my talk, no?  To value those whose goals and values don’t align with my own, to find a place for them—for everybody—in my world?  I’m strengthening my practice of self-assessment.  How did I walk the talk today?  How can I do even better tomorrow?  The more concrete and specific, the better—words, actions, and attitudes.  It’s my own version of “trudging the road of happy destiny.”

On that note, I leave you with two more resources that hold me up this weekend:

First, Hank Azaria’s conversation with Dax Shepard and Monica Padman on the Armchair Expert podcast.  They discuss addiction, privilege, and racism, among other things.  What an inspiring example of vulnerability, courage, humility, connection, and lifelong learning and growth.

Second, a Forbes profile of Sharon Salzberg, 4 Ways Loving Kindness and Mindfulness Can Change Your Life.  You may read them and think, “Duh, I know that.”  But ask yourself, how does your knowing translate to doing

We have our whole lives to practice.  As Simon Sinek says, the goal is not to be perfect by the end; it is to be better today.

The One and the Many

How do you change your words or message depending on your audience?

Weeks ago I read an article sharply criticizing public health messaging throughout the pandemic, and took a hard look at my own communication over the past year.  A year ago I wrote a series of posts on COVID, which were generally well received.  I have consistently taken a very conservative approach to mitigation, admonishing people to avoid gatherings and travel, mask up, and be patient.  In my public messaging, I have not directly addressed the mental, emotional, economic, and social costs of all of these measures. 

But what about in my private conversations?  How are they/am I different?

I thought of two groups with whom I interact:  Those whom I know personally, who trust me, and who think similarly to me, and those whom I don’t know, who may not trust me, and who think/believe differently from how I do.  Okay so six groups, not two—and they can overlap—I have patients who trust me and think very differently—but I think my messaging generally takes one of two approaches depending on my audience.  And in the end, I think it comes down to trust.

The One

When speaking to one person whom I know, or someone who agrees with me, two assumptions are at play: 1) they trust me, and 2) I trust that they trust me.  It sounds semantic, but I think it matters.

In this situation, I’m probably much more willing to admit uncertainty, and to ‘negotiate’ my position because I trust that my counterpart understands and respects my concerns.  So I’m willing to show vulnerability in my expertise because I trust that they know I will incorporate new information and update my recommendations.  I also trust them to know that it’s not because I’m stupid or gullible or on some kind of power trip—we’re all just learning and trying to balance everything that matters in a rock vs hard place situation.  When engaging in mutually trusting conversation, even in disagreement, openness, curiosity, and ambivalence can be taken as humility and seeking truth rather than weakness and lack of conviction, and both parties may be more likely to walk away with broader, more nuanced perspectives.  And best of all, the relationship can be strengthened, allowing for continued engagement, learning, and growth.

The Many

Posting to the blog or on Facebook, I think I run a much higher risk of being misunderstood.  I am responsible for providing clear and concise context for any expression or opinion.  My audience is diverse, and depending on any reader’s mood or context themselves, my words may be interpreted very differently one day or one moment to the next—and I have no control over that.  Do they trust me?  Can I trust them to assume my humility and good intentions?  Unclear.

In this space, depending on my mood, perhaps, I may feel defensive, and/or a deep desire to prove myself right.  I may be much less willing to admit to gaps in my knowledge or flaws in my reasoning, for fear that my expertise will be wholly discounted if one aspect of my interpretations or recommendations is imperfect.  If I assume my audience does not trust me, then I’m less likely to trust them to receive my intended message, to take my advice, and achieve my primary goals.  I get preachy, narrowing my perspective and failing to see more than my own point of view.  I ask fewer questions—that is always a red flag.  I make more assumptions, defensiveness increases, and my mind closes further.  It’s an emotional hijack of sorts, resulting in further disconnect and polarization.  Yikes.

Or maybe, just because I don’t know how my message will be perceived, I qualify and hedge, and lob ideas much more passively, inadvertently conveying that I don’t really believe what I’m saying, that I’m actually not trustworthy, just wishy-washy. 

So what should I do?

I think one solution is mindful attunement and differentiation.  As a communicator in relationship of any kind, but especially when I’m the expert, it is my responsibility to manage this dynamic polarity intentionally.  Face to face, I can make sure the other person feels seen and heard, by asking more questions, paraphrasing, reflecting their values and goals back to them.  When writing for an audience I cannot see or hear, I can respectfully acknowledge opposing opinions and their validity, before presenting my own arguments.  Above all, I can hold a larger space for everyone’s values, concerns, and objectives.  I see you.  Please see me.  What do we both care about?  What trade-offs are we willing and not willing to make to achieve our shared goals?

Results from my Think Again quiz, March, 2021

Adam Grant’s new book, Think Again, will be my personal and professional bible for a while, I think.  Its central tenets are intellectual humility and cognitive flexibility.  I may speak and write like a preacher about things that matter deeply to me.  But I will strive to think more like a scientist, seeking truth and connection above winning arguments and/or proving other people wrong.

In the end, as I practice myself, I will observe and apply these principles in other arenas.  Can we keep attunement and differentiation in mind when we hear leaders and politicians speak?  When a constituency is diverse, and an issue complex, can/should we expect a public figure/expression to convey nuance in generalized statements?  I say yes, absolutely.  I think we should hold leaders, as ourselves, to a much higher standard for acknowledging complexity and uncertainty.  Oversimplified sound bites divide and incite, and we should all reject them, strongly.  We can address complexity and uncertainty without inciting mass panic if our statements also clearly convey conviction to core values, and what we are for more than what we are against. 

We can all/each elevate the quality of both private and public discourse if we help one another feel connected throughout.  That means earning trust, and there is no substitute for the work it takes to do this.

What We Would Give

“I would eat less myself so that you may be full.” 

It’s much more poetic and beautiful spoken in Chinese.  My mom said these words to me as she pretreated a pile of clothes, ‘Asian squatting’ on the floor in front of the washer.  I was in middle school, perhaps.  We were talking casually about parents and children.  She always had, and continues to have, the most efficiently poignant ways to express how infinitely parents love their children—how much they are willing to sacrifice in service of their kids’ health, well-being, and success—all without any residue of shame, guilt, or obligation.  As a parent myself, I totally get it now.

“What I would(n’t) give for…”

When have you thought or uttered these words?  What was it for, a hot dog?  A drink of water?  Your loved one not to have cancer?  Reconciliation with and estranged friend?  An end to systemic racism?

What are we willing to give for what we really care about?  Where is the evidence in action for the values we profess? 

I’m listening to Barack Obama’s memoir, savoring it now in the last few hours.  What I really appreciate is the inside look at the rationale, the complexity, and the reality of policy making.  He explains why he chose to push certain policies through legislation rather than executive order, knowing it was the harder and politically higher risk path.  He describes the personal, relational, legal, and procedural struggles that made legislative losses so frustrating and wins so satisfying.  This was an easy ‘read’ because he is my hero.  I relate to his motivations and understand his rationale easily—I know him as a fellow tribe member.  Next I will attempt Mitch McConnell’s The Long Game, in an honest effort to see the other side’s perspective.  I will buckle down and grit my teeth, and try my best to listen with presence and openness… and also critical, respectful skepticism.

I want tell the story about our elected officials that they entered public life in pursuit of ideals greater than themselves, what Simon Sinek names ‘a just cause’.  According to Sinek a truly just cause is 1) for something—protagonistic and visionary; 2) inclusive—anybody can join; 3) service oriented—benefits others; 4) resilient—endures in the face of change; and 5) idealistic—impossible to actually achieve, but inspires us to pursue anyway.  I see pursuit of just causes so clearly in President Obama’s words and actions.  I have trouble with some others’.   I know many have the opposite experience—how fascinating!

I also want to tell the story that our politicians are people of integrity, who negotiate and compromise with both short term outcomes and long term strategy in mind, all in service of their just cause.  But even knowing that we citizens never see the whole picture, even giving them the benefit of the doubt, it’s a hard story to believe much of the time.  …So if it’s not a true story, what are we citizens willing to give to make it so?

When does compromise constitute hypocrisy?  When does calling out hypocrisy amount just to whining?  When is it better to let this one go and wait for next time, or to go for broke now, lest we miss our only opportunity?  How much are we willing to spend/invest/lose/fail/sacrifice, in order to achieve our ultimate goals?

What are we each really willing to give?  What does this tell us about our values?

And in the end, how will we be at peace with the consequences of our in/actions?