Even the ‘Oppressor’ Deserves Safety and Support

This weekend I reflected in gratitude at my LOH experience in the past year.  After resonating with Dr. Suchman’s moving keynote at a physician health conference in 2018, I sought him out to express thanks.  He encouraged me to apply for the program.  Then he coached me twice on getting institutional support, something I had never done before.  All through the program, he and Diane Rawlins, two of the best teachers I have had (and that is saying a lot), led us all through ten months of complex conceptual learning and skills practice.  Even better, they helped us synthesize and integrate learning between sessions, applying concepts through practice in our natural habitats, knowing we could report back to the group to debrief and trouble shoot before heading back into ‘the trenches.’  LOH runs annual reunions, refreshers and mixers during which attendees from different cohorts can meet, bond, and both expand and tighten our community of lifelong learners.  In the time of COVID, alum meetings have occurred about every two weeks over Zoom, from the comfort of our homes all across the country.  The more I think about it, the more I wish everybody had this kind of safety and support—this kind learning laboratory and community—to acquire scary new skills that, when practiced, benefit many more people than just us learners.

I imagine this may be what participants in the White Men’s Caucus feel.  Read all about it in Four Days to Change, which I started and finished in about three sittings.  –No really, read this book.  It provides a unique and profoundly important perspective on the true meaning of inclusion, that is, white men absolutely need to be included in leading and benefiting from systemic change for equity, not just passively doing the changing for others’ sake.  During the Caucus retreat, white men are both challenged and supported to dig deep into their own privilege.  Inescapable mirrors of truth and profound discomfort, and also of love and compassion, surround them for four days.  They are expected to feel tremendous guilt and shame, both natural emotions that occur on the path of self-discovery and humility.  But rather than weaponizing these feelings, facilitators love the attendees through them, shepherding them through the emotional (shit)storm to a place of self-compassion and forgiveness.  This is where their outward humility, openness, and sincere advocacy for inclusion and diversity take root—because they experience it first hand from their teachers and peer learners.  Leadership is hard enough, but leading initiatives in diversity, equity, and inclusion is a whole other dimension of complexity.  How can we expect any leader, white male or otherwise (but white males especially), to do it well alone, without a core peer group willing to hold their feet to the fire with both love and conviction? 

I wrote earlier this year, “Practicing inclusion INCLUDES the OWG (Old White Guy) ‘oppressor’!  If we talk only about him needing to include others, while we make him feel excluded himself, how can we ever expect to enroll him in our cause or even behave in the way we ask? We do how we feel. And when we feel threatened and marginalized, especially from a place of loss, we act accordingly.” 

Michael Welp writes in Four Days, “(My mentor) inspired me when he (said), ‘The only way to touch other white men is through love.’  His words have always stayed with me.  However, the overall pattern observed in my dissertation was that white male diversity advocates disconnected from other white men and drew most of their support from white women and people of color.  They were frustrated and angry toward other white men.” 

Imagine people of your own tribe, a tribe you may lead in good faith, suddenly confronting you about biases and prejudices that you never knew you had, telling you how you’re harming people all around the tribe, and that you have to change it all now, adopt a new set of beliefs and initiatives today, and they will accept nothing less than your complete and unquestioning compliance because you are simply in the wrong.  Would you respond better if they came at you with such accusations and demands, or came alongside you with a grave and critical invitation to curiosity and learning together, for the good of the whole tribe, yourself included?  Which approach is more likely to yield tangible results in the near term?  Which one is more likely to still engage you in the long term?

We can learn important lessons from addiction medicine.  Patients succeed in rehab with a lot of grit and commitment.  They also benefit from the unyielding support and dedication of treatment staff and various environmental safety precautions.  But relapse rates are high (40-80%) in no small part because the safety and support so crucial to getting sober in rehab too often simply do not exist in an addict’s natural habitat.  

The converse was found to be true among American servicemen who fought in the Vietnam War.  Up to 20% of them were found to be addicted to heroin while overseas.  But upon return, only 5% of those who recovered relapsed.  After rigorous study (by a well-respected woman researcher, whose results and report were initially questioned and even derided—but that’s for another post), it is now widely accepted that the environment plays a key role in our behaviors, habits, and ability to change.  Soldiers in Vietnam, as James Clear writes, “spent all day surrounded by cues triggering heroin use: it was easy to access, they were engulfed by the constant stress of war, they built friendships with fellow soldiers who were also heroin users, and they were thousands of miles from home. Once a soldier returned to the United States, though, he found himself in an environment devoid of those triggers. When the context changed, so did the habit.”

The system often dictates, or at least strongly influences, how we perceive, think, behave, and relate.  And we are the system, every one of us.  By assimilating to the dominant white male culture, even as we see ourselves as resistors, we perpetuate it.  But when we resist by only opposing our white male counterparts, rather than enrolling them in the resistance movement as equals, we undermine our own progress.  Everybody deserves the safety and support to do their own personal Reckoning, Rumbling, and Revolution, as Brené Brown describes in her book Rising Strong.  Real positive change is grounded in vulnerability, humility, and courage.  If we really expect our white male leaders to change in ways fundamental and profound enough to advance equity in any meaningful way, they need the safety and support to reckon and rumble with their resistance, their rage, their fear, culture, identity, relationships, memories, realizations—all of it—with people they can relate to and who can hold them up fully, who will not turn away or against them.  As I wrote last week, more and more I see that perhaps only other white men can truly do this.

To be clear, this post is not an apology for white male supremacy and the vast suffering this mentality has wreaked all throughout history.  I just think it’s important, and too seldom attended to, that white men also suffer in and from the culture they dominate.  And in order to really change this culture for the better, we all need to support one another, white men included.

Agency and Emergence

IMG_1568

When do you push forward, and when do you step back?

How do you decide, or is it decided for you?

How does this reciprocal rhythm oscillate and dance in your life?

*****

Modern western culture tells individuals and organizations alike: Grow! Move! Push! –Or die!  Competition and scarcity dominate the collective psyche, if not consciously then subconsciously, no question.  Even on vacation we are pressured to do something socially noteworthy, lest we have nothing to report upon return.  There is a palpable, frenetic, explicit and implicit drive—to keep driving.  I’m not complaining, necessarily.  Growth, innovation, evolution, improvement, advancement, development—I pursue these with as much fervor as anyone.  It has served me well!  My whole life the hard work (and a lot of luck) has paid off in spades, in school, work, and now leadership in multiple realms.  I have accomplished as much as I could have imagined at this age, and I’m just getting started!  How exciting and rewarding, living a life of audacious acceleration, of claiming agency, of “Yes, AND!”

IMG_1547

Tara Donovan, Chicago IL July 2019

Yet, lately I feel another energy emerging.  It came on unexpectedly, and I welcome it like my oldest friend.

I only realized it as I wrote about ‘Aunt Rachel,’ Dr. Rachel Remen, last month.  “I am called to slow down, to be still, more than I have been (have allowed?), for a very long time,” I wrote, quite spontaneously.  Those words forelighted a month of ‘settling and recharging… awareness and fulfillment,’ as I wrote to my friend, when I realized what was happening.  This meta-awareness always fills me with awe and gratitude, as if the cosmos lets me in on a secret, conspiring to prepare me for what lies ahead. Remen’s My Grandfather’s Blessings reminds me of the importance of human connection at the deepest level.  Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert makes me confident and brave to create, to make things to share, like this blog or a new oral presentation.  The Art of Possibility helps me dig deep, in a different way every time I reread it, for fundamental relational skills when I need them the most.

The week I wrote about Aunt Rachel, Maria Popova’s post on friendship as rendered by Kahlil Gibran crossed my email inbox.  The Prophet was one of my favorite books in high school.  I found it moving, inspiring, and reassuring, like a lovingly personal counselor, in those emotionally tumultuous adolescent times.  Popova’s post brought that comfort back, similar to how Remen’s book did in recent weeks.  I felt compelled to follow her sequential links to writings by Seneca, CS Lewis, David Whyte, and John O’Donohue, all on friendship.  She quotes Seneca, the stoic: “Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself…”  Something within me was deeply moved, activated to seek more.

IMG_1545

Tara Donovan, Chicago, IL, July 2019

How fascinating, what is with this fresh call on my attention?  I’m not sure, but I trust it fully, and have embraced it.  I found To Bless the Space Between Us by John O’Donohue, a book of the most eloquent blessings, and Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by David Whyte.  Both books quench my thirst for beautiful language that articulates the deep longing for meaning and connection, with myself as well as with others.  They call to me.

Between caring for patients, leading work teams, proposing new projects, LOH training, speaking engagements, wife-ing, parenting and friending, life could hardly be more challenging or fulfilling (I should also call my parents more often!).  I see every meeting, every letter, every message as a chance to show up all in, fully present, at my best.  To be my Best Self in all realms, I push myself to learn, practice, and excel, to exercise my agency in service of relationships and connection.  So sometimes the universe approaches me lovingly, jogging alongside, inviting me to slow down.  Take a break, he says, enjoy the view.  Soak it in.  Relish how far you’ve come, what you’ve built thus far.  Breathe deep, stretch out.  Rest a while.  What do you see, she asks, how does it feel? What have you learned, they say, what can you synthesize and integrate, before you march on with resolve and conviction once again, in the direction of your biggest dreams?

The word pairs below emerged, with a little nudging, over the past week.  I see them not as dichotomies, not at all in conflict.  Rather, they are each separate and inextricable sides of the same multifaceted polyhedron of life, necessary counterbalances for a healthy, fulfilling, and meaningful existence.  I started wearing my Yin-Yang ring in January.  It is meant to remind me that opposites are more often complementary than oppositional.  Our society values agency over emergence.  We endorse doing ahead of holding.  But practicing emergence is by no means passive, weak, or unproductive.  It is active, enthusiastic participation in the dance of life, the reciprocal movement of ebb and flow.  Childbirth and heartbeat are quintessential examples of the balance of Agency and Emergence, giving and receiving, contracting and relaxing.

What other word pairs would you add?

I commit to fully inhabiting, savoring this deliberate time and open space, however long it lasts.  Energy will shift again, as it always does.  I have the next self-improvement books and task lists in queue.  I’ll get on the blocks again, ready for the starting gun, soon enough.  But for now, I breathe deeply and look around in appreciation and learning.

 

   Agency                           Emergence

Control                             Relation

        Action                          Observation

Power                        Capacity

Acceleration                          Momentum

      Focus                         Zoom Out

Contraction                       Relaxation

Tightening                      Stretching

Exhale (blow)                     Inhale (smell)

  Intention                        Possibility

  Strength                        Elasticity

Telling                        Asking

             Make this happen                         What’s trying to happen?

            Tap the system                       Watch it spin a while

               Grip                        Hold loosely

Drive                      Ride

Take up space                          Hold space

Yang                     Yin

  Heartbeat

  Childbirth

The exhibit where I took the art photos:  https://smartmuseum.uchicago.edu/exhibitions/tara-donovan-fieldwork/

This Is My Hogwarts

Sylvan Dale Lodge

My friends, I belong.  This weekend marked the beginning of a ten month training program in communication, leadership, connection, and creativity.  9 of us made it to Colorado after the bomb cyclone (Patrick, we missed you—can’t wait to meet you in May!) to launch Cohort 11 of Leading Organizations to Health (LOH).  Our teachers, Tony Suchman and Diane Rawlins, led us through three days of introspection, skills acquisition and practice, and formation in community.  It all happened at the Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch in Loveland, surrounded by mountains, river, wildlife, and a rich history of family and hospitality.

We are training in relationship-centered care and administration, helping one another embody our best relationship tendencies, so we may help our organizations function at higher levels of connection and effectiveness.  It’s too exciting!

I walked into the lodge at Sylvan Dale, saw the vaulted ceiling with the icicle lights, and immediately thought of Hogwarts.  I came to this place, called by something to the Why of my soul, to be with others like me.  We are here to train, to hone our skills for good.  Within the first session I realized I can totally be myself in this crowd.  Here, I’m no longer a lone voice focused on relationships ahead of everything else, no longer the only one who cannot help seeing how the nature of our relationships permeates every interaction, every decision—and how we recreate them in every moment.  No more self-editing and explaining, tip-toeing around what matters most to me.  I can fully inhabit my relationship convictions here, in this space and among these new friends.  I feel an ease of purpose and values in this group that I come to, like a deep well, to fill my bucket and irrigate my garden of personal and professional growth.  Here, I am not a black sheep.

I now have 9 new people-nodes to connect and integrate into my existing relationship webs—a new and emerging system.  We share stories with common themes, new insights, and mutual support.  These ten months we will form and evolve as individuals as well as a community.  It’s a type of love, really…  At least that’s how it feels to me.  Hooray!