On Malice, Validation, and the Butterfly Effect

A mash-up quote; still helpful.
Image from https://www.facebook.com/BlessedAreTheWeird/posts/i-like-this-whoever-wrote-itupdate-appears-to-be-a-translation-of-text-from-the-/947443432078922/
Likely sources: https://merrimackvalleyhavurah.wordpress.com/2018/06/23/fake-news-fake-quotes/

Friends, here is my latest confluence of ideas for making a more lovingly connected world, from three articles I have read this month:

Malice

Readers of this blog may know that I’m a big fan of David French. He writes columns for The Atlantic and The Dispatch, and serves the latter as senior editor. He is politically conservative and one of my intellectual role models. Last weekend he posted an article, “A Blow Against the Malice Theory of American Politics,” which I highly recommend. Some highlights:

“Negative polarization (or negative partisanship), as I’ve written many times, is the term for politics that is fundamentally motivated by animosity for the other side more than affection to your own party’s leaders or ideas. 

“Under the malice theory, the key to electoral victory is unlocking that anger. That means highlighting everything wrong with your opponents. That means hyping their alleged mortal threat to the Republic. Because of pre-existing animosity, your message will fall on fertile soil.

“In this context, it’s easy to see how kindness and graciousness are seen as weakness, or at least as a lack of conviction.”

Basically, if we think of our political opponents as a ‘them’, an other, we make them an abstraction. If we paint them with broad brushes in various shades of ‘evil,’ then we make ourselves fundamentally susceptible to tyrants who manupilate that fear and hatred for their own purposes. We follow blindly out of emotional hijack, deluding ourselves that we are being totally rational. The ultimate tool of such tyrants is dehumanization, making ‘the other’ a thing rather than a person, something we could not possibly relate to or care for.

Validation

One potent antidote to dehumanization and malice politics is emotional validation. I found this article while writing Monday’s post on how to be less shitty to one another. If you read any of the essays from this post, read this one! More highlights:

“Emotional validation is the process of learning about, understanding, and expressing acceptance of another person’s emotional experience. Emotional validation is distinguished from emotional invalidation, when a person’s emotional experiences are rejected, ignored, or judged.

“Validating an emotion doesn’t mean that you agree with the other person or that you think their emotional response is warranted. Rather, you demonstrate that you understand what they are feeling without trying to talk them out of or shame them for it.”

When we talk about people on the ‘other’ side of politics from us, what do we say? Do we speak in generalizations? Do we assume nefarious motives, declaring that they are just bad people? Maybe we say we ‘can’t imagine,’ ‘don’t understand’ how anyone would vote the way they do? What assumptions do we make about how they live their lives and how it must be completely different from us? Validation requires us to put down these generalizations and see each other as individuals, humans, people with whom we are in relationship (and we are all in relationship)–to move in closer, as Brene Brown asks us to do. It’s a practice in empathy and ultimately, a neutralizer of negative partisanship.

Why should we validate one another’s emotions? Because it helps us connect, especially across difference. When we feel validated, we let our guard down. When we feel seen, we de-escalate. Then we are more likely and able to engage in discussions, even disagreements, with more openness and curiosity, respect and collaboration. But someone has to take the first step on the path to de-escalation, to lead by example and invitation.

The Butterfly Effect

In my Quirky Nerd post, I mentioned this idea at the end, in passing. I like to include links to interesting ideas, and found the essay on Farnam Street by Shane Parrish and/or his team. Parrish hosts The Knowledge Project, one of my favorite podcasts. Ever since learning about the self-organizing nature of culture, I have felt validated (ha!) and increasingly confident to point out how the impact of any given node in any system both impacts and is impacted by that system–because everything is connected! I define myself as a node, and I am a member of multiple systems at once (we all are). Some systems are nested (family, neighborhood, city, state, nation); some overlap (Chinese-Americans, physicians, working moms). Looking from the most complex and simultaneous perspective, we can then see how the state or movement of any one node may have direct and indirect ripple effects that propagate and eventuate in dramatic multi-systemic change.

Or, it may not. It’s a paradox–anything you and I do can have transformative effects or no effect at all. I wrote about this as the Optimistic Nihilist. From Farnam Street: ” John Gribbin writes in his cult-classic work Deep Simplicity, ‘some systems … are very sensitive to their starting conditions, so that a tiny difference in the initial ‘push’ you give them causes a big difference in where they end up, and there is feedback, so that what a system does affects its own behavior.’

“We like to think we can predict the future and exercise a degree of control over powerful systems such as the weather and the economy. Yet the butterfly effect shows that we cannot. The systems around us are chaotic and entropic, prone to sudden change. For some kinds of systems, we can try to create favorable starting conditions and be mindful of the kinds of catalysts that might act on those conditions – but that’s as far as our power extends. If we think that we can identify every catalyst and control or predict outcomes, we are only setting ourselves up for a fall.”

My point here is that when I start to feel too small to make a difference, I just remember my role as node. I may not see the waves that my attitude, words, actions and relationships create in the world. But I believe wholeheartedly that I can and do make a difference–a big one, potentially. I just don’t know exactly which day, which conversation, which post, which relationship will incite the shifts I agitate to make–toward mutual understanding, accpetance, cooperation, and connection. Thus, anything and everything I do matters, so I keep it up. I commit to playing the infinite game of human connection, and my just cause is to de-escalate, defuse, and disarm us, in service of interpersonal peace. But anything I do could not matter at all, so I don’t have to burden myself with perfection and exhaustive hamster wheeling.

It’s a perfectly joyous paradox.

Thanks for reading to the end of this long one, folks. Past the halfway mark of 30 days, woohoooooo! I’m still having a lot of fun, hope you are, too!

Peace out, my peeps—ODOMOBaaT.

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Books of 2020

Hello Friends!  HOLY cow, what a year…  What have we learned?  What do we hold in front as we enter 2021?  What do leave behind without hesitation?  And of course, what did you read this year?  I consumed fewer books than I had intended.  But I did manage to read or hear over 1.8 million words, the equivalent of over 25 books on Pocket, according to the email I got from the app.  So that’s something. 

Please find below the list of books I consumed (or attempted, or continue to engage with) this year.  Please make recommendations, if you have any, in the comments!  Read and write on, friends!

  1. Think Like a Rocket Scientist by Ozan Varol@   (@One of my favorites)  Usually I read books like this over and over.  But the ideas from TLARS stay fresh and live on Ozan’s private forum, the Inner Circle.  I’ve made some awesome new friends and had some of the most stimulating conversations of the year on this page.  What ties us together, aside from our Ozan fandom, is our shared resonance with the idea of challenging the status quo, thinking in possibility.
  2. Speak by Sally Lou Oaks Loveman*  (*Abandoned)  Just not interesting enough to keep my attention.
  3. The Weekend Book Proposal by Ryan G. Van Cleave#  (#In progress)  I’ll come back to this one in 2021.  Practical and humorous, recommended by friend, author, and fellow blogger Donna Cameron
  4. Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell    Another winner by another master challenger of status quo thinking.  Though not outright political in nature, the ideas explored in this book took on important socio-political relevance in 2020.  The fundamental tenets would serve us well to remember as we enter the New Year:  Our assumptions often operate without our conscious awareness, sometimes with destructive consequences.  It behooves us to talk to people and know them as individuals, rather than making assumptions based on group identity.
  5. Collaborating with the Enemy by Adam Kahane    A bit dense, and slow at times.  But another excellent reminder of the importance of cultivating relationships across difference, practicing empathy and nonjudgment, and exercising power always with love.
  6. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottleib    I memoir by a therapist.  Touching, engaging, and reminiscent of my own personal experience as a clinician.  Worth a listen.
  7. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins*    Well written and engaging, some controversy around race, the publishing industry, and ‘trauma porn.’  I abandoned when I could no longer ignore the call of my ever-growing pile of non-fiction books…
  8. Four Days to Change by Michael Welp@     A must-read for anyone working on self-awareness, and who wants to advance equity and inclusion by leading others in the practice.  Written with compassion and empathy, by a white man, for white men.   
  9. Leadership on the Line by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky@    Another gem.  Concise, practical, and an excellent integration of abstract relational concepts with concrete leadership practices that help me move from weeds to vision and back again with more agility, grace, and confidence.
  10. Notorious RBG by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik    A re-listen, with the family this time, on our summer road trip.  Short, funny, inspiring.  Highly recommend.
  11. Personal Leadership by Barbara Schaetti, Sheila Ramsey, and Gordon Watanabe#,@   Another deceptively simple and also richly deep and transformative book and program.  Thank you, friend Sharon Kristjanson, for your coaching and your class, where we get to play with this and other important concepts for Engaging with Difference.  I look forward to continued evolution in my personal leadership style and application.
  12. How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi#    Dense, a bit pedantic, also personal and important.  Will continue to work my way through, considering the larger picture of racism and how I both contribute and can help effect change.
  13. Mating In Captivity by Esther Perel@   Last year I heard Sex at Dawn; this was my sex book for 2020.  Irreverent, lighthearted, and also based on decades of clinical expertise; also attractive to nonconventional thinkers and experiencers.  Her Facebook group is also a fantastic place to learn about all the things you never knew people did in their sex lives.  Highly recommend both.
  14. Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad   Much more practical and easier to consume than Kendi’s book.  Written as a workbook, each chapter grows a practice of awareness and action, grounded in humility and non-judgment. 
  15. But I Don’t See You as Asian by Bruce Reyes-Chow    Self-published and one of the only non-fiction books I could find written on racism from the Asian-American perspective.  Its purpose, much like Saad’s, is to enlighten white people on the impact of their cultural dominance, the way we might with our closest friends.  Worth the inexpensive print  read.
  16. Caste by Isabel Wilkerson@    No doubt you’ve read and heard about this book everywhere.  It’s every bit as amazing and important as everybody says.  Just read it.
  17. Caffeine by Michael Pollan    A fun and well-researched, short break from the heavy reads of summer.  Hasn’t change my habits…. Yet.
  18. Dear Girls by Ali Wong*   Funny, often heartfelt, and ultimately not engaging enough for this reader.
  19. What Unites Us by Dan Rather@   Read by Rather himself, an engaging and eloquent memoir that shines the warm light of hope and perseverance on the despair of today.  “Steady,” he says.  Highly recommend.
  20. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho    Read by Jeremy Irons on Audible, such a treat!  An allegory, though I’m not sure I quite understand the lesson.  I’ll come back to this one, for sure.
  21. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out:  The Best Short Works of Richard Feynman ed. Jeffrey Robbins#    I bet Dr. Feynman enjoyed being thought of as kooky.  I like to read and hear kooky folks’ own words, but they require focus, especially when they’re talking about quantum physics.  So I’m getting through this one slowly, and enjoying it.
  22. The Courage to Raise Good Men by Olga Silverstein, Beth Rashbaum    Wish I had read this when Son was much younger.  Lots of gender stereotype stuff that I instinctively push(ed) against already, but with practical examples and recommendations that I could have used sooner.
  23. Fauci by Michael Specter (Audible exclusive)    I learned so much in this short book about Dr. Fauci’s early evolution as a clinical researcher and community liaison during the AIDS epidemic.  He really walks the talk of engaging with difference, professionally and personally.  We are so lucky to still have his leadership, and I admire him so much.  Learn about this humble and steady role model.
  24. Divided We Fall by David French    Follow this conservative Christian civil rights attorney’s newsletters and blog at The French Press.  I find he practices that dynamic balance of standing firm in his own convictions and core values, while maintaining an open and discerning mind for the value and validity of opposing views.  I thought his characterizations of ‘the left’ were often generalized and not totally fair, and his outlook is much more pessimistic than mine.  But I always appreciate his perspective, as it challenges me to query my own, keeping me fair and honest.
  25. Managing Polarities by Barry Johnson#    A concept I first learned halfway through LOH, which didn’t resonate deeply right away.  But thank God for the lesson, as it stands front and center as one of the most important concepts of 2020, right there with paradox and flexibility.    Polarities are necessary; they are not problems to be solved; they are relational phenomena that require keen awareness and management for ultimate success.
  26. Burnout:  The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski#    Humorous, well-researched, eloquent, moving, and personal.  It breaks down the physiologic, psychologic, and sociologic origins and consequences of stress and burnout, and presents an evidence-based process for coping with anything life throws with a lot more confidence, and less suffering. 
  27. Simple Habits for Complex Times by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston#    Unlike Changing on the Job, this book is written in allegory form, which I sometimes find tedious and distracting.  I should probably read rather than listen.  Will pick it up again and finish soon.
  28. Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner    Engagingly conceived and written, again joyfully stimulating to the contrarian in me.  Written 13 years ago, I wonder how it would be received today, given its sweeping generalizations and conclusions.  The authors proclaim themselves that the book has no real unifying theme (other than, perhaps, reminding us to regularly challenge conventional wisdom), and its ideas are not necessarily applicable in any concrete or personal way.  Reminds me of Gladwell—just makes me think.  I really want to ask the authors, “What are the most interesting and worthy rebuttals to your claims and conclusions so far?”
  29. A Promised Land by Barack Obama    I started this book in earnest today.  I’m on chapter 4, 3 hours in, 26 to go.  Read by President Obama himself, I feel soothed as soon as I tap ‘play’.  He uplifts me from my pessimism and burnout already.  My hope in the possibility and aspirations of our country swells again, despite the craziness I see all around me right now—the absolute, abject, unfathomable and enraging craziness

*sigh*  So many books, so many so many!  Here’s to the elegance and connecting power of words, in all forms.  May they hold us together and up, may we find in them comfort and solace, and may we always use our own for good.

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