Letter to Self, November 4, 2020

Dear Cathy,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally:  Dance.  Less news.  More music.

You’ got this.

Excavating the Dark Side of the Shitpile

Who’s ready to get off this roller coaster?

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

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

*sigh*

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

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

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

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

What triggers you?

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

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

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

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

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

The Books

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Four Days to Change by Micheal Welp

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

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

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

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

The Websites/Groups/Resources

Braver Angels—depolarizing America, one conversation at a time

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

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

The Dispatch—conservative news

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

David French, The French Press

Chris Ladd, Political Orphans, and formerly GOPLifer

The Concepts and Practices

Technical vs Adaptive Challenges and Change—Heifetz and Linsky

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

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

Cone in the Box:  Perspective taking—Judy Sorum Brown

Managing Polarities—Barry Johnson

Attune and Differentiate:  One Week’s Synthesis

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Friends, don’t you just love when an idea you resonate with recurs in your consciousness from disparate sources in short order, further deepening its meaning?  I share three pieces with you this week, which all deepened my commitment to embracing the paradox of attunement and differentiation.

CO fall 2018

First, I listened again to Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness.  I highly recommend this book to help us all, conservatives and progressives alike, engage (not avoid) one another this election year with a lot more compassion, civility, and mutual respect.  Throughout the book Sister Brené shares personal stories as well as evidence from her research that define true belonging, which I think of as another expression for self-actualization and self-transcendence.  In her words:

True belonging requires us to believe in and belong to ourselves so fully that we can find sacredness in both being a part of something, and standing alone when necessary. But in a culture that’s rife with perfectionism and pleasing, and with the erosion of civility, it’s easy to stay quiet, hide in our ideological bunkers, or fit in rather than show up as our true selves and brave the wilderness of uncertainty and criticism.

Attune and differentiate:  these two practices are not only not mutually exclusive, they are essential and integral for whole person and societal health and well-being.  Read the book to adopt her four practices to advance true belonging, for yourself and for all of us:

  1. People Are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move In.
  2. Speak Truth to Bullshit. Be Civil.
  3. Hold Hands. With Strangers.
  4. Strong Back. Soft Front.  Wild Heart.

Sister columbines

Second, I met Massimo on Ozan’s last Inner Circle Zoom call.  He is a designer and facilitator from Italy—thank you again, Ozan, for connecting so many of us all around the world!  Massimo has launched a blog, which resonated with me because he also advocates finding your voice (differentiating) as well as finding a community of belonging (attunement) as a reason to write:

…Meet new people and to interact with them

Learning adventures can make you feel on a solitary path, too much unbalanced on the input, reading and digesting side without much interaction. Expand your network, look for more interactive exchanges with whom might provide an alternative, critical point of view compared to yours. Exposing your opinions leads self-selecting people to network and resonate with you. Find your tribe. We need many and none at the same time. You need different communities where to manifest and explore your interests. On the other hand, you need to better focus on creating those which are more fertile ground to nurture your continuously changing interests and aspirations.

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Third, I read David Brooks’s article in The New York Times on the ethos of Scandanavian education.  Eloquent as usual, he synthesizes a complex set of ideas into language we can all understand:

19th-century Nordic elites…realized that they were going to have to make lifelong learning a part of the natural fabric of society.

…(Their system) is devised to help (students) understand complex systems and see the relations between things — between self and society, between a community of relationships in a family and a town. 

…Nordic educators also worked hard to develop the student’s internal awareness. That is to say, they helped students see the forces always roiling inside the self — the emotions, cravings, wounds and desires. If you could see those forces and their interplay, as if from the outside, you could be their master and not their slave. 

…Their intuition was that as people grow, they have the ability to go through developmental phases, to see themselves and the world through ever more complex lenses. A young child may blindly obey authority — Mom, Dad, teacher. Then she internalizes and conforms to the norms of the group. Then she learns to create her own norms based on her own values. Then she learns to see herself as a node in a network of selves and thus learns mutuality and holistic thinking. [See Changing on the Job by Jennifer Garvey Berger for more on this theory of adult development.]

Scandanavians…have a distinctive sense of the relationship between personal freedom and communal responsibility.

(Meanwhile, in the United States…) If you have a thin educational system that does not help students see the webs of significance between people, does not even help students see how they see, you’re going to wind up with a society in which people can’t see through each other’s lenses.

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In 2020 more than ever, we need to cultivate much stronger relationship skills.  We must identify and honor our core values and stand up for them, even when attacked by those closest to us—perhaps even especially then.  How we honor our best selves determines how we honor others.  When we show up at our most honest and authentic, we can call forth the same in others to meet us.  We can relate as fellow humans, inextricably connected, mutually interdependent, and all in it together.  Once we realize this, we can know in our hearts that we truly belong to ourselves and to one another, and we can more easily get on with the world’s most important work—connecting humanity in health, safety, and love.