Be Brave- Be the Change

So, what stands out most to you these days?  Surging COVID cases and hospital admissions?  SCOTUS aberrations?  Election tension and drama?  A sense of doom and nihilism about the future of humanity?  Hope requires ever more effort to acquire and maintain, no?

So many people complain about how divided we are, how the country is headed toward civil war… How we can’t talk to our friends who disagree… As if there nothing we can do about it.  But they attack my position, they just yell and scream, they get so emotional, I hear.  It’s too hard to talk, so I abandon my relationships that used to bring joy and connection.  And I blame the other; I take no responsibility myself.

Huh.

What’s the phrase, Be the Change you wish to see in the world?

Maybe we could do this a little more?

And then elect people who can lead by a much better example?  What would that be like?

Yes, it’s work. So. Much. Hard. Work.  And it never ends.

What’s that other phrase?  If not us, who? If not now, when?

We are all full participants here–the current state of things is the logarithmic sum of all of our relationships—the good, bad, ugly and all.  For whom are we waiting to save us?  How much longer will we each play the hapless victim?

We ALL share responsibility.

But it’s too hard, I hear.  Yes, I know.  I’m sorry, there is no way around this.  And it’s okay!  We can do hard things!  Humans have dominated our environment, defied nature, and flourished for generations.  And yet, we somehow still succumb to our most primitive and self-defeating tribal instincts—how fascinating!  Sometimes I really do feel like we will drive ourselves to self-destructive extinction in my lifetime.  But every day I wake up is another opportunity to avert this fate. 

And it is hard!  Every day I bite my tongue, moderate my thoughts and words so as not to slide down the rabbit hole of despair and denigration.  I still commit ‘passionate trash mouth’ as a friend calls it—I often follow “Be the Change” with “Own Your Shit.”  I’m not perfect.  But my mission is worthy and I pursue it with fervor.

It doesn’t have to be anything grand or far-reaching.  We can just remember a few things, for starters, to get us through whatever comes next—to exercise our own agency, each of us, to shape it all for the better.

The Opposition Will Not Be Vanquished.  Neither will they stop opposing.  Polarities are necessary and healthy in life.  Both conservative and progressive ideals serve the common good.  Competing and parallel goals and values will always co-exist—it’s a paradox—and the more we can accept this necessary and inextricable relationship, the sooner we can move with the push/pull flow rather than against it.

I lean progressive; you lean conservative.  Rather than mutual categorical conquest, we can seek dynamic balance—of power and goals, among other things.  Life with other humans is a dance; it requires attunement and differentiation, give and take, and mutual cooperation for us all to thrive.  Extreme ad hominem rhetoric and arrogant, self-righteous displays of disrespect fracture our relational foundations.  Cracks then propagate widely and we find ourselves here, on the verge of violence and social disintegration.

Find and Acknowledge the Kernel of Truth.  Life coaching taught me one of the most important lessons in life:  Everybody’s right, and only partially.  When the opposition criticizes you, your position, or the outcomes of ‘your side’s’ policies, do you validate the partial truth of that criticism?  Do you even see it?  Or do you maintain that your side is always right, and the opposition is always wrong?  Give and take, remember?  Admitting a flaw does not mean invalidating an entire ethos or platform.  Complex adaptive issues cannot be solved or even managed with sweeping and yet oversimplified, sound-bitten solutions.  I acknowledge the imperfection(s) in my program.  And, my intentions and objectives are important and worthy.  How can I learn from your challenging perspective and make mine better, more accountable and resilient, in service of more people?  What small steps can we take toward mutual understanding and collaboration, rather than bickering and stalemate?  How is my opposition actually my ally?

It Starts With Me.  Stop bystanding—complaining and whining like a spectator.  Rather, upstand for civil discourse—engage.  When someone yells at/near me in criticism and contempt, I can yell back, give as good as I get.  I can get defensive, stonewall, or disengage.  These are the horsemen of the relationship apocalypse, as John Gottman describes them (read about the antidotes here).  Instead of fight, flight, or freeze, practice tend and befriend.  Acknowledge people’s emotions and core values on all sides.  Empathize.  Verbalize understanding.  Voice your hurt feelings and invite the other to understand your personal perspective.  Tell your story.  Invite others’ stories and listen wholeheartedly.  Scary, right?  Vulnerable.  Brave

This moment calls us forth to peel off the heavy armor of hostility, binary thinking, and tribalism.  We are called to meet the ‘opposition’ disarmed and disarming, offering humility and compassion, on the open field of shared humanity and common goals.  We must advocate for our causes repeatedly with ardently calm and patient logos as well as pathos, and hear the others’ retort, calm and patient or not, with open hearts and a learning attitude.  It is up to each of us to lead by example

We cannot ‘beat’ them; we may or may not join them; and we can always meet them.  Negotiation is always possible, and like in all relationships, we must all show up in good faith, and have some faith in the each other.  We must commit and live up to our own trustworthiness first.

These are all skills we can learn, practice, and master.  There are models all around us.  We only have to look, listen, and emulate.  If you’re interested in more formal training and practice, check out Braver Angels and Better Arguments.  I’m signed up for another training session in December.  Practice makes better.

Pre- and Post-op Election Care

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you make people feel?

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

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

What are you already doing to make things better?

Listen More Deeply—Much More Deeply 

Listen through the words and beyond your own head. 

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

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

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

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

Elevate Your Opponent’s Humanity

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Body Signs of Stress

How does stress manifest physically for you? 

I’ve asked patients for years now.  Some people know exactly what I’m talking about and answer without hesitation—“Oh, migraines—MONSTER migraines.  As soon as I feel one coming on I know I’ gotta unplug and go for a run!”  Some need a little prompting—I give them other examples like chest tightness, loss of appetite, or insomnia.  For others, it helps to ask what their significant others or children tell them.  “What would your wife say if I asked her,” usually gets a pretty immediate and animated reply.  Very occasionally, even after all of that, some still don’t really understand the question, or deflect, and we move on.

I noticed neck pain as my stress signal sometime in my 20s.  I suspect my body learned this nerve pattern during residency, when my heavily laden white coat pockets dragged my posture toward the floor for well over 80 hours a week.  I remember taking the coat off (aaaaahh, relieeeeef), then picking it back up later to put it on (aaaaaarrgh).  I’d say it probably weighed a good 5 to 7 pounds.  If you’ve never experienced this, and you’re also looking for a great laugh, check out this video of the Try Guys wearing boob weights for a day. You’re welcome!

For years a simple backrub or even just a good night of sleep would take care of it.  But in spring of 2010 I started having a hard time sitting still at work.  Increasingly I was distracted by tightness, and eventually searing pain, all around my neck and shoulders.  It was diffuse and constant, and I could never find a comfortable position, day or night.  Ibuprofen would not help, and hour long massages only very briefly.  It had been six months since starting a new position, and I was ‘way more stressed than I realized.  The day before vacation I thought, I bet this goes away in Colorado.  And voila, by the time we landed in Denver I was already feeling like myself.  After a week in my happy place, I returned to work expecting the neck pain to recur.  Happily, it didn’t!  Hooray, all fixed!

Not so fast.

A month later I developed astonishing pain and sensitivity in my right forearm—cubital tunnel syndrome—to the point where I had to roll up my sleeve because I could not stand the touch of the fabric.  I barely got through CPR training one morning; I told my mind-body physician friend, thinking he’d recommend a supplement or something.  He listened compassionately and reflected how often he’d heard the same story from patients.  “Sometimes the body just puts it in another place,” he said simply. 

Thankfully at the end of that week, I went away to my first ever mindfulness retreat with other medical educators.  I could not remember the last time I had so much quiet time to myself, not having to rush somewhere, make a decision, or take care of someone.  After dinner we had free time and I climbed into a bay window and started writing.  On a random legal pad I dumped everything that had swirled in my mind for however long—deep, complex thoughts that poured forth from the pen in a torrent, pages and pages full.  By that night going to bed, my forearm felt normal, and that pain has not come back.  I’ve been journaling regularly ever since.

Over the years, the neck pain has come and gone, and improved significantly since I left that job.  But even in the last two years as I have taken on more at work, and in the past six months of utter chaos, it has only recurred mildly. 

***

Out of nowhere last week, I developed a sore throat.  Strange.  It came on and worsened suddenly over a few hours, then abated after an hour Zoom call with my Braver Angels pals and a big mug of honey tea.  I had no other symptoms—no fever, body aches, fatigue, nasal congestion, or headache—just a really irritated throat, and only on the right side.  On further reflection, I had also been doom scrolling, eating, and online shopping more. Huh. 

This is exactly what happened back in March, when I wrote four blog posts in eleven days about the pandemic.  Looking back, I see the same pattern of behavior—staying up late, reading voraciously, ruminating, anticipating, problem solving, and looking for things to do to help.  For days in a row I had mild, barely perceptible throat irritation and nothing else.  It came and went, without discernable patterns or correlations. 

New body sign!  How fascinating.

This time I had to call in sick to work.  The team sprang into action and rearranged schedules.  My patients all agreed to speak by phone; my colleagues did their physical exams in my stead.  Everybody was so understanding and gracious, their day turned upside down, all because I had a sore throat for a few hours. 

Rightly so.  What if it were an infection?  What if the person I was with 5 days earlier, who was now home sick, had COVID (they didn’t, and we were both masked and distanced, together for only 15 minutes)?  What if I ignored the sign of potential infection and came to work, and then transmitted to the team and my patients?  Yes, it was a huge hassle for everybody to make last minute workflow changes.  But that was nothing compared to the potential, exponentially larger hassles of a whole workforce having to stay home sick, all because of me.

Right now we should take no chances.  Now more than ever we must build, sustain, and advocate for work systems that support the health and well-being of the workforce.  We need to make it safe—and expected—for employees to take care of themselves, thereby caring for coworkers and clients.  Short term inconvenience is the investment for the returns of long term loyalty, cohesion, and success.

If we slow down and pitch in—if we all take care of each other on the team—maybe we will have the mental and temporal space to notice new patterns.  Not just new personal body signs of stress, but new community signs of need, new collective signs of connection, and new team signs of creativity, innovation, and core values expression.  Wow, wouldn’t that be something?