Holding the Space for Our Suffering to Heal Us

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Hello again, dear friends.  Peace, love, and joy be with you on this, the autumnal equinox.

This post marks the conclusion of the Healing Through Connection Summer Series, 2016:  Holding the Space.  The story I will tell is important to me, and I love that it’s the series finale.  I wish I had posted on the last day of summer, but the first day of fall is okay, too.  Two days ago I was privileged to witness a whole lot of people, hold a whole lot of space, for a whole lot of suffering.  And I posit that we all came away better for it.  I invite you to sit back, get comfy, and take your time with this one.  I’m feeling particularly fulfilled as I sit to write, and I hope to convey the deep gladness I gained from the experience.

***

It was day three of the International Conference on Physician Health, in Boston.  I had anticipated this meeting giddily for nine months.  From the moment I heard the call for abstracts, through the iterative preparatory steps, to the final emails, texts, PowerPoints, and conference calls with collaborators, through the personal connections and learning, I was now positively beside myself with zeal.  It was everything I had hoped and more.  I was surrounded by colleagues from three continents, all gathered to share and unite around making our professional world more humane.  We explored ideas like awe, joy, mindfulness, empathy, presence, and vulnerability.  I had lived two glorious days in a cocoon of safety, love, and resonance.  I was among my people.

This day’s workshop focused on compassion, and aimed to tap its deepest reaches within each attendee.  The presenter prepared us for the exercise by describing his work with previous groups—CEOs breaking open in anger, shame, forgiveness, and finally compassion.  He asked that we hold the gravity of vulnerability with reverence and respect.  We understood the solemnness asked of us, and responded in kind.  This was the exercise:

On a blank 5×7 index card, write a personal story.  You will have five minutes.  The cards will be collected at your table, redistributed, and shared anonymously at another table.  Be aware that your writing may be shared aloud with the whole group, later in the exercise.  Instruction:  Write the story of a time in the past year that was really hard for you, when you suffered.  It could be personal or professional.

For a split second I felt a catching in my chest—‘Yikes!’  And in the next breath, ‘Bring it.’  I knew this tribe.  They would hold it for me, with me, no question.  And because I was also a tribe member, I would do it for them.  I looked forward to it, actually.  I wrote with surprisingly little effort, concisely yet in detail, about a particularly challenging relationship and my struggles with perfectionism.  How could my other relationships shine so brightly, feel so easy, and flow so freely, while this one so regularly caused me angst and turmoil?

At the end of five minutes my tablemates and I placed our cards in an envelope provided.  I felt oddly relieved, as though a great weight I carried all this year had been lifted.  The envelope was marked, then passed three or four times between tables, so we didn’t know where our cards ended up.  They were as letters in a corked bottle, cast into the ocean, released to an uncertain, but hopeful, fate.

Our presenter explained that at this time, the envelopes would normally be opened, and each of us would take one card and read it.  We were to hold it and its anonymous author in the space of compassion, then share with our tablemates.  We would help one another hold one another.  Then, if so moved, each table would choose one card to share with the larger group.  Our task was to connect, with ourselves and one another, to feel deeply now, to remind us how to do it out in the world.  This was where it would get real, we all knew.   And though he had warned us earlier about an unforeseen shortening of the workshop schedule, we did not see the abrupt end of the exercise coming.  He told us we would not have enough time to do the exercise justice, and so the envelopes would remain unopened this day.  He acknowledged the conflict we all felt, the urge to look.  But he stood firm that experiences like this cannot be rushed, and he respected the time constraints of the meeting.

The tension in the room was palpable, even as we all sat in silence.  It felt jarring, painful, anxious.  What would happen to the cards?  What about all that suffering contained in them, people’s hearts and lives scribed with intention to be seen, known, understood, and held?  Surely they would not just be thrown in the trash?  One colleague voiced so poignantly our core conflict:  We all wanted closure for this vulnerable exercise, and that need competed with honor for the time required to complete it.  Our leader gracefully acknowledged this truth, and solemnly held the space for us all to be present to its discomfort.

For a moment we felt stuck, we connection seekers.  I looked at our leader.  His expression conveyed nothing but humility and empathy.  His posture conveyed resolution.  Despite our deep longing, he refused to lead us into treacherously thorny fields, because he knew he did not have the time to bring us safely through to the other side.  But he also allowed us to process, invited us to consider how else we could collectively resolve our unease.

I wondered what would physically become of the cards.  Would he take them home with him?  Would he burn them in a reverent ceremony of sorts?  I knew he felt responsible for us and our predicament.  Would he read each one, hold each of us and all of our suffering, all by himself?  I felt immediate compassion for him, and hoped that he would not take that route; none of us would want that for him.

I wanted to suggest that we be given the option of each pulling one card, to hold in compassion privately, as we left the workshop.   But we were spread out in a big room, feeling separated from one another rather than connected, and I felt sheepish.

Within a minute or so we had decided to collect the envelopes together, stand surrounding them as if around an altar, and offer a benediction of sorts.  I could not shake the urge to reach out, to take one person’s suffering and hold it for them, love them, send energy of compassion and solidarity to them, whoever they may be.  I realized also that this was exactly what I wanted for my card, for my suffering.  And now that we stood shoulder to shoulder, at least physically if not emotionally proximal, I felt more comfortable to speak.  “I really want for someone to take my card and hold it for me, and I really want to do that for someone.”  Another attendee immediately looked me in the eye and said, “I’ll do it.”  The group consented; each of us would take a card at random, if we wanted.  I pulled one from the third envelope from the top of the pile.  I held it to my chest and returned to my seat.  I forgot all about my own card, and my anxiety evaporated.  I no longer cared if anyone saw mine; I had released it.  My task was to hold my colleague’s sorrow with my own heart, and wish with my whole being for their peace and healing.

I’m so proud of all of us.  We attended to so many needs that morning, all with respect and kindness.  The presenter set the tone for the workshop from the beginning and we all understood the learning objectives: Practice opening up to let the healing in and practice the inner work of holding another’s suffering with your own.  Connect with our shared humanity.  We all learned an important lesson in flexibility, creativity, collaboration, and acceptance.  We held space like champions.

I’m proud of myself for finally speaking up, for asking for what I needed.  That I was met with such generosity and tenderness speaks to the remarkable power of mutual understanding and compassion.  I took a deep breath and read the card in my hands.  My colleague’s story was short, about the 5 year anniversary of his/her father’s death, and memories of loss and helplessness.  Tears came when I read it.  I hugged the card and said a prayer for its writer.  I’ll keep the card someplace safe, and eventually release it in some respectful, peaceful way.

I don’t know if anyone pulled my card.  It’s okay.  Just the hope that someone might have seen it and given it some consideration is enough.  I learned the lesson I needed: Offering my pain for someone else to hold a while, and accepting another’s sorrow to hold for them, constitutes the cycle of healing.  We are not here to go it alone.  We need one another in the best ways.

Holding the Space for Shadow Behind the Light

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Have you ever been in an argument and suddenly realized the perfectly mean thing to say, that ultimate verbal weapon that would render your opponent categorically mute and ambush them into abject submission?  It’s an exhilaratingly powerful feeling, isn’t it?  What did you do?  Did you bite your tongue and take the high(er) road?  Did you blunt the skewer and lob something passive-aggressive instead?  Or did you let loose that ax with the full force of rage behind it, just to see what would happen?

***

I had another convergence experience last week, in a series of articles on my Facebook newsfeed.  It started when I saw this piece on reconciling the parts of ourselves which we subconsciously hate, in order to live more integrated, fulfilling lives, particularly in our relationships with others.  The author discusses Carl Jung’s core ideas, stating, “To heal a split in self, a person needs to work with their shadow and learn uncomfortable truths about themselves in the process. Our inner war is softened when we allow ourselves to be seen. Not just the side of ourselves that matches our intersubjective ideal — that is easy. We show those feathers prominently. No, we need to accept our failures and shortcomings too.”

Yes, I know.  It’s the Sh*tpile all over again.

The Remembrance

I attempted to read a book several years ago, Debbie Ford’s The Dark Side of the Light Chasers.  There is an exercise on page 69 of the 2010 paperback edition in which she lists a set of negative words, such as greedy, phony, cheap, lazy, wimp, fat, passive, coward, etc.  The instructions are as follows:  “Identify the words that have an emotional charge for you.  Say out loud, ‘I am ________.’  If you say it without any emotional charge, then move on to the next word.  Write down the words that you dislike or react to.  If you are not sure…ask yourself how you’d really feel if someone you respected called you this word.  If you’d be angry or upset, write it down.  Also…(think about) words that are not on this list that run your life or cause you pain.”  The list is almost two pages long.

Back around 2011 I did this exercise in earnest.  I wrote down words like controlling, bitchy, rigid, egocentric, better than, arrogant, defensive, judgmental, condescending, oversensitive, and many more.  I’m looking at the list right now, written on a napkin while I sat alone reading at lunch—so long and depressing.  Who knew I hated so many things about myself?  I got through another 40 pages of the book, as evidenced by the bookmark still wedged at the end of the chapter entitled, “Embracing Your Dark Side.”  All I remember is the profound, visceral discomfort I felt after that exercise, the unshakable fear and shame, and how I basically came home that day and picked a fight with my husband that lasted for two weeks.  Not my proudest moments on this journey of self-discovery….  I remember thinking, ‘This is f*ing hard.  How will I ever get on the other side of it all?’

These days, things feel very different.  I’ve done a lot (a lot) more inner work, studied and learned, and enlisted professional help to overcome my aversions to emotional vulnerability.  I’m thinking I could probably pick this book up again, redo the exercise, and have a very different experience.

The Emergence of a Thread

While I pondered this, another article came across my newsfeed, entitled, “What Nice Men Never Tell Nice Women.”  Basically it describes the internal tension between men’s competing impulses: “The nice man is democratic, egalitarian and deeply sympathetic to the feminist agenda – and yet in sexual fantasy, he loves the idea of being tyrannical, bullying and really very rough. He himself can’t understand the disjuncture between competing parts of his nature; he is spooked by the drastic switch in his value-system that occurs the very second after orgasm.”  Wow.

The article concludes with, “It’s clearly very hard for the partners of the nice to take on board the darker sides of their lovers. But if they are robust enough to dare to give them some attention, the result can be an extraordinary flowering of the relationship beyond anything yet experienced. However close we may be to someone because they have been nice to us, it’s as nothing next to the closeness we’ll achieve if we allow them to show us, without shaming or humiliating them, what really isn’t quite so nice about them.

“Out there, in the politer corners of society, nice guys are – without saying a thing, that’s not their style – waiting for nice women to start to gently take the weighty burden of their ‘badness’ off them. And, of course, vice versa too, for no gender has any monopoly on the sense of being bad.”  This last sentence gave me pause and hope.  It turned the tables and made it okay for women to also have a dark side, for us to also struggle with our ‘niceness.’

One of my friends commented, questioning, “So all men are either openly hostile and misogynistic, or are burying their dark feelings?”  I almost reflexively I replied, “I took the article as saying we all bury our dark feelings somewhat, and we can live fuller, healthier lives if we both acknowledge them and manage them effectively.”  Again, I found myself returning to this core idea of grappling with our inner demons.  By now I started to wonder about cosmic timing.  What has the re-emergence to teach me now?  We all have some base impulses, parts of ourselves that we would sooner deny than acknowledge, let alone show to the world.  I wrote about this, rather spontaneously and unexpectedly, at the beginning of the Blogging A to Z Challenge.  Little did I know then that this would become a recurring theme this summer.  It’s as if the universe urges me onward, perhaps sensing that my motivation to dig in my shitpile wanes, when I ought to be digging deeper, integrating more?  Isn’t this what I’m always preaching, to Own Your Shit?  Okay then, I thought, I will stay on the path.

The Dark Side of the Dark Side

The next article to converge on this shadow-themed week came in the form of tweets by a reporter from a Trump rally on August 18th.  People were saying Hillary Clinton should be executed, calling her a ‘f*ing witch,’ calling President Obama a ‘goddamn Muslim terrorist,’ saying ‘reporters need lobotomies, and maybe that’s what Trump will do after elected,’ wanting to ‘hurt the press,’ mentioning ‘a civil war if Trump loses,’ and it goes on.  It occurred to me that these are examples of us not managing our dark sides very well.  The article on Carl Jung and Debbie Ford’s book both embrace the idea of uncovering our less generous traits with compassion, and integrating them for a healthier whole.  These people’s behavior, by contrast, demonstrates the profound risks of allowing those darker impulses to overtake our consciousness, words, and actions.  The container of repression has its limits.  When someone outside applies incendiary words and rhetoric, the fire drives internal pressures beyond the container’s capacity.  If that person then provides a release valve in the form of a similarly aggravated group, well, violence and mayhem are born.

In my previous posts I have reminded myself to remember to look beyond the mob mentality, and listen for the individuals’ personal experiences.  I have to continuously remind myself that we must have more in common than not.  We are all human, after all, and we love our country.  So what could drive people to abandon all social norms of restraint, and unleash such profound loathing into the world?

I came across the final piece in the convergence on Sunday, which offers some insight.  Veteran journalist Joel Stein wrote this blog post exploring the nature of internet trolls.  In it he describes how despite the profoundly abhorrent things these people may write to their online prey, they are not the dregs of society that we may imagine.  He quotes a social media exec: “’The idea of the basement dweller drinking Mountain Dew and eating Doritos isn’t accurate,’ she says. ‘They (could) be a doctor, a lawyer, an inspirational speaker, a kindergarten teacher.  It’s more complex than just being good or bad… It’s not all men either; women do take part in it.’  There’s no real life indicator,” he writes.

Stein describes his experience confronting his own troll of two years, a 26 year-old, small-framed, female freelance writer who on multiple occasions tweeted that she wanted to “kick (his) ass.”  He invited her over Twitter to meet for lunch in order to confront her, and she cheerfully agreed over email.  Excuse me??  During the meal she admitted that she was just lashing out at what she perceived as his ‘smarminess,’ and told him outright, “’It’s clear I’m just projecting. The things I hate about you are the things I hate about myself.’”  And though she had been trolled worse than he, she experienced no sympathy that prevented her from doing it to him.  She expressed incredulity when he asked why she never carried out her threats to beat him up, even when she had the chance.  “’Why would I do that?’ she said. ‘The Internet is the realm of the coward. These are people who are all sound and no fury.’”

So more and more, in both large, impersonal groups and online, our dark sides are given free reign with few, if any, meaningful consequences.  Under cover of the mob and anonymity of the internet, we can freely relieve our repression.  But it comes without any insight, and there is no lasting benefit, for ourselves or those around us.  There is only offloading, a temporary pressure release, only to continue re-accumulating, with unpredictable and potentially very destructive outcomes.

This is not, I think, the manner in which Carl Jung envisioned us coming to grips with our shadow selves.  This is not integration.  Rather it is advanced separation— perpetual splitting of self from self and from others.

The Lesson

So what have I learned?  We all harbor coarse, corrupt, even barbaric tendencies.  We are descendants of cavemen, after all, and still hardwired as such in our limbic brains.  Still, most of us exercise discretion and civility in everyday life, and find ways to get along in society—we exert neocortical controls.  Every once in a while, though, something gets the best of us, catches us off guard, and the ugly slips out.  Sometimes it’s pretty scary ugly.

Once again, I conclude that shaming ourselves or one another for the repugnance is the opposite of helpful.  Just like the offloading behavior that incites our disapproval, automatic ad hominem negativity toward perpetrators of such words or acts only serves to further alienate them, adds fuel to the fomenting rage fires.  When we berate ourselves for our shortcomings, we make ourselves smaller and less resilient–more likely to react with rage rather than respond with gentleness.

In the end I think it’s about judgment.  We can and should judge which attitudes, policies, and behaviors we deem right and good.  At the same time we should exercise caution and extreme patience when we find ourselves judging ourselves and others on worthiness.  The default assumption must be that we are all worthy, that we all deserve a voice, no matter how vulgar and objectionable our words.  We must apply boundaries, and we should expect mutual respect and tolerance; we can find ways to deal with disrespect and intolerance that do not invalidate one another’s innate humanity.

As we each pursue our own inner work, dig in our respective shitpiles, we contribute to the life gardens of those around us, and lead by example.  It can be back- and sometimes spirit-breaking work.  But we must continue.  There is too much at stake for us to take the path of least resistance, the path of separation and alienation.  Let us stay on the more demanding and more rewarding path together, friends–the path of connection.  Let us hold one another up through the shadows, and seek always the light within each and all of us.

Holding the Space for Connection Through the Hard Conversations, Part II

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Today I watched this video of Trump supporters at his rallies.  Their words, actions, and expressions represent the basest human emotions.  I posted the video to my Facebook page, commenting:

(Donald Trump incites rage and hate) in his followers. He stokes the worst in people. He provokes the emotional states that preclude rational thought and reasonable behavior–he is the king of emotional hijacking. Nobody ever makes a good decision while emotionally hijacked; that is when relationships and connection are destroyed, often violently and permanently.

And here’s another irony:  We non-supporters are similarly hijacked by his belligerence.  He and his supporters incite us to rail against them all, collectively and wholly as individuals, as racists, bigots, idiots, haters, etc.  Name-calling is the easiest and most convenient way to separate ourselves from what we disdain, what we fear, and what’s too uncomfortable to tolerate.  But how does this help anything?

On my last blog post I wrote:

I intend to avoid:

-Speaking and writing in sweeping generalizations

-Following snap judgments about groups, or individuals based on their group membership

-Labeling and shaming people or groups as ‘racist,’ ’ignorant,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘lazy,’ etc.

Today I wrote about Trump’s supporters:

I’m trying not to label and pigeon-hole these people, trying not to judge them and discard them, just by what I see here.  That only advances the exact mentality I seek to reverse: more separation, more hatred, more “you are less than me, you don’t matter.”

I guess I have to keep reminding myself.

I can hardly imagine what it would be like to sit down, one-on-one, with someone who sincerely supports a Donald Trump presidency, and have a conversation about it.  But I can easily imagine talking to a Trump supporter about the trials and joys of parenting, the breakneck evolution of technology, and a mutual love of Marvel movies.  Who knows, maybe I already do.

I think most of my friends know my political persuasion.  Most of them also share it.  But probably more than I realize don’t share it, and we avoid talking about it.  Why?  Because it’s uncomfortable.  We don’t trust ourselves to avoid the emotional hijacking.  We’re afraid we’ll say something we’ll regret and damage the relationship.  Or (and), we see the only objective of such conversations as trying to change the other person’s mind, or having our mind changed, which feels at the same time futile and scary.  So our avoidance of the hard, uncomfortable conversations is an attempt to maintain connection (with ourselves as well as one another).  We intrinsically understand that our relationships are important.  So we limit our conversations to topics on which we agree.

At this time in our human evolution, however, we are called to do more.  It’s too easy to live in the echo chambers of like-minded friends and media sites.  It’s too easy to filter our perceptions through repetition and reinforcement, to think that our point of view is the only one, or worse, the only right one.  It’s too easy to label others as wholly racist, sexist, bigoted, idiotic, communist, misogynist, mindless, right-wing, extremist, or evil, based on impulsive interactions in comment sections on a blog or Facebook post.  It is simply too easy to fall victim to premature judgment and conviction based on skewed and incomplete evidence.  We are called to so much more.  We are called to the hard conversations, the interactions that require effort and persistence.  Why?  Because the rewards of this work are understanding, compassion, empathy, connection, and love.

My friend wrote to me, “We have to do this work for your beautiful children.”  Yes, my dear friend, for all of our beautiful, innocent children.  Let us model for them what it means to Hold the Space for Connection, even, and especially, when it’s hard.  This is the work we are called to do.

Holding the Space for Connection Through the Hard Conversations, Part I

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Hello again, friends!  I hope this post finds you happy, peaceful, and connected to the most important people in your life.  Looking back on the 26 days since my last post, I can honestly say that the last is always true, but not necessarily the first two.  Often these weeks, I feel challenged, tested, vexed, and conflicted.

Last weekend I had two prolonged and agonal Facebook conversations with one friend.  Tears were shed, consciousness distracted, identity challenged.  Suffice it to say, my friend persisted in his noble effort to help me look deeper into myself.  He helped (goaded?) me out of my comfort zone, challenging me to really empathize with the suffering of others, specifically of blacks in America—to put myself in their shoes, something I may have never truly done before, or a least don’t do often enough, I’m humbled to say.

I have always thought of myself as an empathetic person.  I can almost always relate to my friends’ and patients’ stories of loss, struggle, and suffering.  I can imagine, one-on-one, how I would feel in their shoes.  But I have also been careful not to say things like “I know how you feel.”  Long ago I learned that those words overstep the boundaries of truly shared experience, and I came to view them as presumptuous and negative.  As a result, I’m quick to acknowledge that though I can usually imagine, I cannot truly know the unique suffering of another.  My dear friend helped me realize last weekend that in my effort to respect and defer to other people’s suffering—again, specifically black people—I inadvertently separate myself from it, and from them.  And that, ironically, undermines the very connection I try so hard to cultivate every day.  I talk and write all the time about our ‘shared humanity.’  But it was not until the hard conversations last weekend that I realized—or was reminded, I’m not quite sure,  maybe I knew before?—what that phrase truly means.  Because of him I’m now far less likely to see current events as happening to Muslims, Blacks, or Asians, but rather as happening to fellow humans.  I have always understood this intellectually, but now I feel it, emotionally, viscerally.  And maybe that is where true understanding originates.  I am so grateful for this insight.

My last post was about listening…  Rereading it and looking back now, I see that in my Facebook conversations last weekend, I sought initially to be heard more than to hear.  And that’s okay.  Sometimes we need to stand up for ourselves and in our own truth, at the same time that we Hold Space for others.  Fortunately, both my friend and I stuck with the hard conversations, striving to be heard, eventually also listening (reading), and in the end we both felt understood and accepted.  It was painful and frustrating, and totally worth the investment.  Our newly deepened relationship will synergize our respective efforts to make the world better—we have pushed each other higher, we are stronger, because we are connected.

* * * * *

Holding the Space for Personal Acts of Peace—On Listening

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In honor of those who lost their lives this past week:

Alton Sterling, Baton Rouge, LA

Philando Castile, Falcon Heights, MN

Brent Thompson, Lorne Ahrens, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael J. Smith, Michael Krol, Dallas, TX

What can I, one person, do, in the face of such tragedy and pain? How can I help?

I write this post to document my personal intentions for living peacefully. Maybe that’s what I’ve been doing all along on this blog—recording the insights, keeping the journal—so I can remind myself of my ideals and aims, when things get confusing and I lose focus.

The way I see it, the temporal juxtaposition of killings on/by ‘both sides’ of the racial divide this past week led to an important shift in the national conversation on race and violence. I know I will not do justice to all the complexities of our issues in one blog post, but I ask your forbearance for my interpretation, as it has led me to greater conviction for what I can do, I, one person.

 

Listening to Understand

The first step to peace is to get quiet and listen. This is a central practice of Holding the Space.  Before we can solve our problems, especially problems between individuals or groups of people, we must slow down and really hear the narratives of all sides.  But when tragedy, especially violence between groups, strikes, I usually see and hear more shouting, blaming, and demanding, than listening.  At once people stake their positions around an issue, such as racial discrimination or gun control/gun rights.  I see words hurled on news and social media pitting one group against another, each claiming the only right opinion.

I think this is why I have not fully embraced movements like Black Lives Matter and Everytown for Gun Safety. To be clear: my values and opinions align with these groups, no doubt.  I believe that our country has a long way yet to go, to recognize and reconcile institutional racism and a runaway gun culture.  That said, when I claim membership in such a visible umbrella movement, I may be instantly perceived as less open-minded than I am.  “She supports Black Lives Matter; she must be anti-police.  I can’t talk to her.  I can’t tell her why I support cops and I why (her) movement upsets me.”  This sentiment, or something akin, may be conscious or unconscious.  With the person who feels it (and I do think it’s more of a feeling than a thought), already I have lost an opportunity to hear and learn from ‘the other side.’  When that happens, we both (all) lose.  When someone with an opposing view thinks I will not listen, am unwilling to hear them, then what else can they do but shout, blame, and demand?  So by not shouting and demanding loudly from my own camp, I leave myself open to approach, and be approached by, anyone.  I send an implicit invitation for communication and exchange of ideas.

This is the difference I see in the past week. More than debate over police reform and gun control legislation, I see pleas for increased compassion and understanding.  It feels less inflammatory and more contemplative.  Finally, the suffering seems to have quieted us, and we seem ready to engage more civilly.

Others have written and spoken about listening this week, more eloquently than I:

Brené Brown, on her Facebook page, July 7:

I believe that healing racism will require honest conversations about race and class privilege – with our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers, our families, and our children. Yes, these are hard, uncomfortable discussions and we can become paralyzed by the fear of saying the wrong thing or being misunderstood. But we have to be braver than we’ve been because the cost of not having these conversations is paid in lives.

Maria Shriver, on her Sunday Paper, July 10:

There are times in life when answers aren’t what we need. We just need to listen. Listen without judgement. Listen to the wails, listen to the fear. Listen to the divide. Sometimes when someone is screaming for answers they are really screaming to be heard, to be acknowledged, to be understood. Sometimes there are no answers to our questions large and small. Sometimes demanding answers won’t get us the answers we need.

Father James Martin, on his Facebook page, July 10, on the Good Samaritan parable; those you despise have something to teach you:

…Not just that we are called to be compassionate to people that we despise, or think we despise, but that people we despise, might help us. They might have something to give us, to teach us.  That is, we’re called to the person we hate as someone we need…  The Black Lives Matter protestor has something to learn from the Trump supporter.  The Trump supporter has something essential to be taught by Hillary Clinton herself. The fundamentalist Christian has something to learn from the same sex couple.  The pro-life advocate has something important to be taught by the person who works for Planned Parenthood…  Because in times of division, we often think that being kind means telling people that they’re wrong—for their own good, of course.  …Telling them that they’re wrong, or that they’re evil, or that they’re not a real American.  But the deeper message of the parable is a lot harder…  The one you think you hate is about to help you.  The one you think is wrong has something to teach you.  Upon the person you hate depends your soul.  And once you realize this, you cease to hate them, of course.  Jesus is telling us once again that there is no ‘other’.  There is no person who cannot teach you something.  Learn from the one you think you hate.  Listen to him.  Open your mind to her.  That’s your neighbor.  So the Good Samaritan (parable) is not just about the good Samaritan who helps.  It’s (also) about the man by the side of the road, who receives help from the one he thought he hated.

I shared House Speaker Paul Ryan’s remarks on my Facebook page this week.  He used words like respect, compassion, and common humanity.  He cautioned against anger that would “send us further into our corners.”  He upheld the president as ‘rightfully’ saying justice will be done.  I don’t like Paul Ryan, and I don’t particularly trust him.  But I posted his words to remind myself that I need to pay attention—to listen—when I hear people I normally oppose, say something I agree with, even if I am skeptical. Otherwise I contribute to perpetuating the divisions that I say I want to heal.

 

Listening to Heal

I imagine those who would say that listening is not enough. It will take too long to iron out our differences, if that’s even possible.  We need to act, and act now.  We demand justice now, gun control now, new laws now, change now, end the violence now!   We need boldness, aggressiveness, decisiveness.

I propose that taking time to stop and really listen to our opposition is, in fact, a bold and decisive act.  It certainly goes against convention these days.  If we said to our protesting and rallying peers, “Wait a minute, maybe they have a point… Maybe we should take a moment and hear them out,” how would most of the group respond?  Peer pressure can snuff the flame of inquiry faster than we can imagine.  But make no mistake, listening can and does make a difference in real time.

Recall the fabled story of a depressed teenager on his way home from school. He plans to kill himself this day.  Somewhere along the way, a classmate approaches, and walks with him.  They spend the afternoon in each other’s company, talking, throwing a football, maybe listening to music.  The suicidal teen decides to live another day.  He feels seen and heard, maybe even understood.  Someone has noticed him; he is no longer invisible.

On April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy made a whole city feel heard. During a presidential campaign stop in Indianapolis, he remarked on the assassination that day of Dr. Martin Luther King.

…Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black — considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with — be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King — yeah, it’s true — but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love — a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past, but we — and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

According to his granddaughter Kick Kennedy, 34 American cities rioted that night, but not Indianapolis.  It was the only city with a large black population that didn’t.  I think this is pretty good evidence for the healing power of listening.  It was not an interactive encounter, but Bobby Kennedy aligned himself with the best of people’s hearts that night—and isn’t that the essence of real listening?

We have hard days ahead. I want to help.

I intend to avoid:

-Speaking and writing in sweeping generalizations

-Following snap judgments about groups, or individuals based on their group membership

-Labeling and shaming people or groups as ‘racist,’ ’ignorant,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘lazy,’ etc.

Instead, I resolve to:

-Ask more questions; say things like, “Tell me more…”

-Listen to people’s stories

-Look for what we have in common—shared interests and values, rather than opposing positions

-Practice awareness of my own biases and how they influence my perceptions, words, and actions

 

I will listen for peace.

#AtoZChallenge: Withhold Judgment

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My brain is so tired. All month I have racked it trying to figure out what to write next, how to render it most authentically, and finally get it out looking close enough to how I intended.  On top of that, I have also engaged in multiple exchanges on Facebook around gender identity, public restroom use, vaccine rationale, and presidential politics.  It really has been shang nao jin, as we say in Chinese—literally wounding the mind.  I realize these are all activities that I choose, and none of them have significant bearing on the world at large.  And, I would do it all again.  My mental exhaustion is the hurt-so-good kind, like the muscle soreness after a particularly strenuous workout, when I know I have pushed myself to my limit and maybe extended it a little.  The writing and conversations are ways that I engage with my world and practice what I preach—open-mindedness, curiosity, and cultivating connection.

After all of this exploration, conversation, debate, research, and observation, once again I conclude that one of the most important practices for inner peace is to Withhold Judgment. Not all judgment, and not indefinitely, but much and for a while.  Here are some illustrations from the past week:

I shared this post on my Facebook page on Saturday.  I agree with the author’s sentiments, basically that discrimination is wrong and we should open our minds and bathrooms to all people.  I also thought her writing was cogent and forceful.  One of my friends pointed out her name calling, as she labeled supporters of the North Carolina HB2 legislation, and people who boycott Target as a result, as hateful.  He then asserted that the left “can’t argue a point without calling people who disagree with them hateful,” or at least they choose not to. At once I see both sides generalizing in ways that preclude any possibility of meaningful mutual understanding.

After this I became more sensitive to name calling in articles I read. Even ones with relevant data and useful information can be tainted, as I found here, in which the writer calls bigots the same people that the previous author called hateful.  Why must we stereotype and label like this?  Is it just to get published, for attention?  Can we not convey our message just as effectively without all this vitriol?

Finally I read and shared this article, in which the author does not call anyone names directly, but writes a brilliant and searing piece of satire that also inflames and incites.  I suppose that is the point of satire, after all?  It was the comments on this last article that really drove home to me the perilous state of assumptions and judgment that drive many of our interactions these days.  If you support this law, you’re hateful.  If you oppose it, you’re irresponsible.  Perform one act that is, superficially, inconsistent with your professed beliefs, you are forever a hypocrite.  Commit one lapse in judgment and you are instantly unworthy of respect, now or in the future.  Snap judgments can degenerate our encounters to a series of sound bites of rhetoric and aggression.  They seriously inhibit, if not completely destroy, our connections, and they consign us to echo chambers of isolation.

The doctor who rushes me through my 15 minute appointment for a sinus infection, after making me wait 30 minutes already, is uncaring and just wants to make more money. Actually, she just spent the last 45 minutes telling her patient of 10 years that he has metastatic cancer and answering his questions, and she is anxious to get to her son’s school play tonight, his first lead role.

The woman who yells at the receptionist and makes a scene with the nurse is just another angry, entitled patient. Actually, her son was killed by a drunk driver last year, she lost her job and her home, and her mother is dying.

Fellow blogger and talented artist Jodi posted this beautiful piece today, including these words:

Skip the religion and politics,

head straight to the compassion.

everything else is a distraction.

— talib kweli

It really spoke to me, because compassion lives at the core of human connection. If we can remember compassion for one another more often, no matter our circumstances and state of mind otherwise, we can probably also remember to Withhold Judgment and listen for the rest of the other person’s story.  Listening more, yelling less, moving slower to the keyboard, showing up in person, asking more questions for understanding—these are the practices of Withholding Judgment.  Please, let us make the effort; it may save us all.

#AtoZChallenge: Opposition and Openness

be the change

Image from Google long ago; I can’t find the link anymore, sorry…

OH, this is a hard one.  Okay, Okay, I just have to write it.  And OMG, I am now two letters behind!

Oppose, Dictionary.com:

  1. To act against or provide resistance to; combat.
  2. To stand in the way of; hinder; obstruct.
  3. To set as an opponent or adversary.
  4. To be hostile or adverse to, as in opinion: to oppose a resolution in a debate.
  5. To set as an obstacle or hindrance.
  6. To set against in some relation, especially as to demonstrate a comparison or contrast: to oppose advantages to diadvantages.
  7. To use or take as being opposite or contrary.

There is so much Opposition in our world now.  I’m thinking specifically of politics.  Like many of my blogging friends here, I eschew writing about politics because it can have unintended consequences and distract from the intent of this blog.  I have alluded to it (Obtusely) here, and commented on another blog here.  Mostly, I don’t feel qualified to comment on politics.  But a Facebook post I wrote a few days ago keeps nagging at me to be shared, and I have struggled around the best way to present it.  So here goes.

When I look at the list of definitions of oppose, I feel tired.  When I think of the energy it takes to constantly stand against something, I feel listless and drained.  Fighting, resisting, combatting, Obstructing, standing in the way, hindering, disputing, dissenting, contradicting—it’s exhausting.  I think of times when I meet someone new and all they talk about are the things they hate, that they can’t stand, that they want changed.  I cannot wait to get away and find levity.  There are two main consequences of the oppositional mindset that put me off:

Polar Isolation

Oppositional mindset pushes people apart—to extremes.  I think now of my Facebook friends who post incendiary words and images.  They blame, shame, ridicule, mock, and degrade Others.  By others I mean those who do not share a common economic background, political ideology, religion, skin color, profession, or even parenting style.  When I see these, I conduct an internal debate.  Part of me wants to engage, to call my friend out for posting something Offensive, distasteful, unprofessional, or unkind.  I try only to be friends on Facebook with real-life friends, so I know these people are not offensive, unkind people in general.  But each time one of them posts something deriding a group to which I belong, I feel hurt.  So I want to ask them, what are they really thinking?  Would they say these things to me in person?  But I know that social media is a poor venue to hold these conversations.  So I almost always scroll over.  Every time, though, there is residue on my figurative shoe from stepping over these posts.  I have to work harder to think of my friend in the same positive light.  I wonder whether we really do share values like I thought we did—because one of my highest values is to be kind to others.  I feel a distance now that I have chosen deflection rather than engagement.  It feels sad and lonely.

This is not to mention the escalating verbal wars waged by our politicians today.  Suffice it to say, I have stopped watching the news and listening to the radio.  I curate my information in small doses and avoid sensational headlines.  Everybody is out to paint the Others as dangerous, untrustworthy, less than.

When all we hear from our Opponents is how much they hate us, how stupid they think we are, how they wish we would shut the f*** up, we will do one of two things.  We will disengage, or we will engage with acute and increasing hostility.  Either way, we push one another further and further apart, and we end up living in polar opposition.  And as we know, conditions at the ends of the earth are harsh.  It’s a desolate and heartbreaking way to live.

Rigidity, Immobility, and Stagnation

The other consequence of a singular focus on that which we oppose is a complete and total lack of progress.  Two examples come to mind:

My child is jumping on the sofa.  “Stop that,” I say, “don’t jump on the sofa.”  She stops momentarily, then starts again in a few minutes, moved by a spontaneous joy that I have long since forgotten.  I keep repeating, “Stop that, do NOT jump on the sofa!”  The focus remains on what I do not want.  I keep a lookout, and each time she repeats the unwanted behavior my frustration mounts.  I may employ negative consequences—the next time she jumps, I take away screen time, or a stuffed animal.  The stakes climb and everybody gets tense.

I hate my body.  I am 20 pounds overweight, I feel sluggish, none of my clothes look good, and it undermines my confidence.  I keep thinking, I don’t want to be fat, I don’t want to be fat.  So every time I’m faced with donuts that someone brought to work, every time I go out to eat with my friends, I brace myself to guard against behaviors that I know will make me more fat.  I succumb sometimes.  I feel shame.  I keep thinking to myself, What’s wrong with me, why do I keep doing things that will keep me fat, when I don’t want to be fat?

There is a saying, “Energy flows where attention goes.”  I don’t know who said it first.  When we focus on what we don’t want, there we remain.  Even when it’s what we oppose, if we continuously attend to it, precious little energy remains to spend on what we do want.  This constant vigilance and guarding keeps us preoccupied with the problem, and impairs our ability to develop solutions.  What if I changed my focus with my child, and let her know what I expect from her?  “The sofa is for sitting.  Can you please sit nicely on the sofa?  How long can you sit still?”  Now I’m generating movement toward something desirable.  I’m making it a challenge, it could even be fun.  Tension is diffused, and I might tap into that long lost joy a little.  My self-talk around weight could also benefit from a subtle shift.  The difference between I don’t want to be fat and I want to be healthy can be profound.  The former keeps me fixated on and entrenched where I am.  The latter helps me move toward a goal, gives me an aspiration.  What does a healthy person do?  She avoids the break room when donuts arrive, finds alternate routes to the bathroom.  She takes the stairs rather than the elevator.  She chooses salad more often than burgers.  I start to envision my best self, and I feel motivated to pursue it (me).

Letting go of my oppositional mindset allows my creativity to shine through, and a world of possibilities may Open up before me.

 

Open, Dictionary.com:

  1. Not closed or barred at the time, as a doorway by a door…
  2. (Of a door, gate, window…) set so as to permit passage through the opening it can be used to close.
  3. Having no means of closing or barring: an open portico.
  4. Having the interior immediately accessible, as a box with the lid raised or a drawer that is pulled out.
  5. Relatively free of obstructions to sight, movement, or internal arrangement: as an open floor plan.
  6. Constructed to as to be without cover or enclosure on the top or on some or all sides: an open boat.
  7. Having relatively large or numerous spaces, voids, or intervals: an open architectural screen; open ranks of soldiers.

Letting go of opposition means Opening ourselves to new possibilities of thought, engagement, Outcomes, and connection.  I believe my friends are kind and generous at heart.  I can still oppose their offensive expressions.  If I do it with an open heart, ready to hear their point of view, withholding judgment and honestly listening for understanding, then I can maintain our relationships, even deepen them.  If I can make them feel seen, heard, understood, accepted and loved, despite our differences, then they will be more likely to extend me the same courtesy.

Being open means being vulnerable.  Just because I Offer openness and understanding does not mean my counterpart will reciprocate.  I could be rejected, ridiculed more, hurt more.  These are the risks and costs of openness.

But what of the benefits?  What if my openness actually creates a space for communication and mutual understanding?  What if my friends and I can lead by example?  Could we start a movement toward taking time to hear one another, seeing different points of view, and holding multifaceted perspectives?  Humans and our experiences are complex.  We cannot easily be distilled into soundbites, headlines, cartoons, and labels.  We should not accept such oversimplifications—we should Oppose them.  And at the same time we need to stand Open to the validity of our fellow citizens’ experiences.  We need to remain Open to the possibility—the certainty—that we really do share common values, goals, and hopes.  We need to work harder to hold our hearts Open to one another, reach out and come in from the cold, polar regions, and strive together for a better world for all of us.  We cannot hold hands with clenched fists (another quote, no?).  I would rather hold hands.

***

Here is the video that triggered my Facebook post of April 15, 2016, and the actual post:

I love Bernie. Also, though, I am starting to notice that his severe criticism of ‘the rich’ and his characterization of them as greedy as a group, oversimplifies.  It does so IN THE SAME WAY AS DOES THOSE WHO CHARACTERIZE POOR PEOPLE AS LAZY.  There are greedy rich people. There are also lazy rich people. There are also greedy and lazy poor people.

I agree with Bernie’s core values and his consistently stated vision for our future. I understand that his proposed policies may be unrealistic and unattainable in the foreseeable future, or maybe even ever. But he gives me something deeply meaningful to strive for, and that is the kind of leader I will follow. Even if we never get there, I will happily trudge the path *in the direction* of said future, because it’s where I want to go.  I do not hear or see a clearly stated vision or aspiration from the Republicans.  Bernie inspires me to be a better person, to make my best contribution to society.

We all have a desire to make a contribution. Psychology research over literally DECADES tells us that human nature is wired to be both productive and connected. So these premises that some of us are innately lazy and live for handouts, and others of us are conversely inclined to accumulate wealth only for ourselves and for its own sake, are not only severely misguided, they are dangerous. These toxic assumptions are exactly what keep each side permanently entrenched in opposition. Assumptions turn into accusations, which then engender mutual defensiveness, then offensiveness. It’s no wonder we have devolved into the current political morass.

I want Bernie to soften his language and invite the rich into conversation, collaboration, innovation, and creativity around solving the problems of inequality and disparity.

I want Republican leaders to moderate the voices in their party who blame the poor as personal failures and the sole architects of their downtrodden situation.

I bet most rich people really do care about the poor, just like I believe most poor people really do want to work and be productive members of society.

How much more could we do, how much better could we be, how much movement could we achieve, based on these assumptions instead?