An Early Resolution

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NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine—Last Post

It’s December 1 here in Chicago, but I have almost 2 hours before midnight in California, and 5 hours in Hawaii, so I’m still counting this post as on time.  Meh whatever, it’s my blog and I can do what I want—last post for NaBloPoMo 2017, woo hoooooooooo!!

Okay so, when was the last time you gave another driver the finger?  I can’t even remember myself, maybe high school?  Definitely by the end of college I had stopped, and I can honestly say I probably only ever did it a handful of times.  In college I was in a car with friends and the driver cheerily wagged his finger at another car that had cut us off.  He didn’t get angry, but rather acknowledged the rudeness with humor.  At least I thought it was humorous.  So I’ve been doing it ever since—but with varying degrees of good humor.

Last week I was driving to work (you know what’s coming).  As I approached an intersection about 1.5 car lengths behind the sedan in front of me, where we had no stop sign but the cross street did, I could see a car inching out at the corner.  I anticipated that it would try to make a turn after the car in front of me passed, thereby causing me to have to slow down.  Sure enough that’s what happened, and I wagged my finger.  I suppose my intent was to shame, I’m embarrassed to write.  If I were that driver, I might have felt ashamed, and also annoyed at the gesture.  He, in turn, showed me a stiff, straight middle finger, accompanied by an unmistakable expression of the very same message—eye contact and all.

That hurt my feelings, I’m also embarrassed to report.  Not quite sure why I’m embarrassed—because I kind of deserved it, or because we’re not supposed to let stuff like this get to us?  Whatever, it felt bad and I didn’t like it.  After reflecting over the next mile or so, I decided that from now on I will simply treat other drivers with kindness first, regardless of the crazy antics they perpetrate on the roads (and let me tell you, in Chicago it can get pretty crazy).  That is the resolution that makes me feel the best.  And now I’m even more embarrassed and ashamed because this is pretty much how my mom treats all drivers (all people, really) since I can remember.  Well, better late than never.

I’m trying to remember how I came to this conclusion, because it took like quick-drying super glue, and I have abided by it firmly ever since.  I tried to imagine myself in that driver’s place.  What would make me in such a hurry that I would intentionally inconvenience another driver, who has the right of way, to get going just a few seconds sooner?  Was he really late for work, or to see a sick relative in the hospital?  Was he just an impatient driver in general?  Regardless, was my finger wagging helpful to either of us?  Would it make him less likely to do the same thing again?  Maybe it would have been better if I had waved, offered some grace and generosity of spirit?  If I were him, I would certainly appreciate that more than a pompous finger wagging.

Exercising patience and generosity on the roads is easier said than done, though, am I right?  Surely I cannot be the only one challenged by this?  Now that I think more about it, maybe my embarrassment at feeling hurt by his gesture relates to the fact that society tells us in a lot of ways that we’re not supposed to treat other drivers as human—and thus not be affected by them.  Jockey for position, don’t let ‘em in, fuck ‘em.  Stupid gestures should mean nothing, because we’re simply expected to treat one another like garbage.  It feels like this when I let someone in my lane and they don’t wave.  No acknowledgement, no appreciation.  That doesn’t feel good, and it’s not who I am.

Long ago I realized that I almost never need to get anywhere so urgently that I need to cut people off or risk my safety, or that of my passengers, in the car.  Whenever I see someone signaling to get in my lane, I almost always make space for them.  I try to avoid entering intersections I cannot clear, because I hate when cars do that and cause gridlock, especially at rush hour.  But somehow I didn’t see the finger wag as contrary to these other acts of driving courtesy—in this respect I guess I was stuck in the ‘fuck ‘em’ mentality.  So it makes sense that after experiencing the other side, and so emphatically, I realized that the only thing to do for my integrity is to reject that behavior altogether.

So, no more finger wagging.  Maybe I’ll take a deep breath and find some other, more neutral expression?  It feels necessary to acknowledge my own frustration, but not necessarily to project it on the other person.  Maybe I need a mantra.  *Deep breath* “You be safe now.”  *Deep breath* “You do you, I’ll do me.”  *Deep breath* “Thank you for not hitting me.”  *Deep breath* “I remind myself that you are a fellow human being, and we are all here doing the best we can.”  Maybe a more succinct version of that last one.  I’ll work on it.  I’m sure I’ll be working on it for a long time yet.

_ _ _

Thanks to all who have read along this month, it’s been fun!  Now onto holiday cards, each of which I will once again attempt to write by hand this year.  It just feels like the right thing to do, and I get to break out my fun colored pens.  In case I don’t make it back in time, Happy Holidays to all, and best wishes in 2018 and beyond!

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 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.

Holding the Space: Beyond ‘Agree to Disagree’, or, A Discussion of White Male Privilege

IMG_2099

I recently found myself engaged in another oppositional conversation on Facebook… and it was a very good thing.

It was the ‘Week of Brock Turner,’ the Stanford swimmer convicted of 3 felony counts of sexual assault of an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. He was sentenced to 6 months in the county jail, only 3 months of which he would likely serve.  Social media erupted more violently each day with outrage and revulsion.  I, like many others, concluded that this represented a stark case of white male privilege at play, and I stated as much on my page.

A friend quickly denied the concept. We agreed that the sentence for Brock Turner’s heinous crime was absurdly lenient.  I wrote that I might have been more accepting of the outcome if he had owned his wrongdoing, and conveyed a sincere apology to the woman for violating her so egregiously.  My friend replied, “You’re nicer than me, I think he should have his balls chopped off.  But I’m old school.”  We both saw the result as unacceptable, but explained it from totally different points of view: he attributed it to the Turner family’s high socioeconomic status, and not to privilege of race or gender.

I shared this article, which I thought explained the phenomenon, one of unconscious bias, with relevant scholarly references.  He shared this article, claiming that white male privilege is an idea promoted by the political left to retain power over minorities.  I posted a link to Michael Kimmel’s TED talk, explaining the essence of privilege—that it is invisible to those who have it.  My friend then posted this article, a logical refutation of white male privilege based on what the author describes as the fallacy of critical race theory.  We each followed the other’s links, and criticized the content thereof (with civility, of course).

Several screens into the thread I realized we were each trying to convince the other, to change the other’s mind. It wasn’t working, duh.  I found myself sucked, again, into a typical tit-for-tat, back and forth argument over positions.  It started to feel like an exercise in futility.  Finally I wrote to my friend that I will study more (I still don’t really understand critical race theory), and meanwhile we can agree to disagree.  I thanked him for engaging, and we concluded the conversation amicably.  It got me thinking though:  Once we agree to disagree, what then?  Where do we go from there?  I still believe strongly in the existence of white male privilege, and he still strongly does not.

Let’s assume that both he and I—indeed most of us—are, in fact, kind, decent, compassionate, and intelligent people. Let’s assume also that we all seek productive and positive relationships with others.  What, then, are the best and worst manifestations of our respective beliefs?  I think it’s an important question.  How could we Hold the Space for the answers?  Here is my attempt:

 

White Male Privilege Exists

Worst manifestations

  • “All white men are misogynist pigs, oblivious to their inherent, unearned privilege, who perpetuate the oppression of women and people of color.” This attitude oversimplifies, generalizes, and stereotypes.
  • “All institutions are insidiously and irrevocably driven by white male privilege, and the only way to overcome this oppression is to treat it/people aggressively. We need to shame them in public until they get it.” This militant attitude incites and provokes, further alienating the very population it seeks to convert.

Best manifestations

  • “We all cannot help our unconscious biases—they are indoctrinated from a very early age and operate beneath conscious awareness. It does not automatically make anyone an inherent racist, sexist, or otherwise a bad person.” I see this as a nonjudgmental, objective, and mindful framework. It recognizes things as they are, however much we dislike them, with patience. It does not pit one group against another, and allows us to approach one another with openness.
  • “We can do our best to call attention, with civility, to white male privilege when we see it playing out in the workplace, social settings, etc.” The goal here is to bring it from unconscious to conscious awareness, where it can be better managed by intellect and reason. This is exactly how we work to overcome stereotypes and other unconscious biases. The first step is awareness, which can come much more easily in settings of nonjudgement, curiosity, and shared humanity.
  • “I will monitor my own biases in all realms, and look for contradictions to my assumptions.” Because I believe white male privilege is so prevalent, I risk over-attributing. It is my responsibility to check my perceptions against reliable and objective truths, or at least seek others’ perspectives for balance.

 

White Male Privilege Does Not Exist

Worst manifestation

“The concept of white male privilege is colossal lie, confabulated by the political left to wield power over minorities. Anyone who ascribes to this fallacy is unworthy of intellectual discourse.”  This attitude dismisses not just the idea, but the people who believe it.  It leads easily to name-calling and accusations, defensiveness and contempt.

Best manifestation

“I don’t believe in white male privilege, but I recognize other important contributors to poverty and social disparities. I will reject attempts to shame my point of view, and refrain from slinging insults in kind.  I pledge to work with others to effect positive change though good-faith pursuit of shared values and common goals.”  This is what I wish for someone on ‘the other side’ to say.  It takes the conversation beyond ‘he said, she said,’ and allows both parties to stand side by side to tackle important issues from different, and possibly complementary perspectives.

 

I am grateful to my friend for engaging with me on this topic. If not for him, I would never have come across the articles he posted.  I would not have questioned my position, or thought to consider the origins and merits of an opposite one.  The conversation called on me to practice critical appraisal as well as openness.  And while my opinion remains unchanged, its application is now more nuanced and thoughtful.  I like this idea of getting beyond ‘agreeing to disagree.’ By identifying the best manifestations of our respective beliefs, we can all contribute to a more just future.

Summer Series 2016: Holding the Space

LSD tree June

Well, hello again, friends! It’s been a while–again!  *sigh*

Sometimes things happen that we can’t quite explain… Like why, after writing 26 enthusiastic posts in 30 days, I could only manage to publish one thing in the ensuing 42 days?  How fascinating!  I’ve entertained several intersecting theories…  And while it’s been a fun and frustrating exercise in introspection, it is now time to let go the analysis, take what I’ve got, and move on.  I know I will integrate it all in the long run.

So today, I officially launch Healing Through Connection Summer Series 2016: Holding the Space.  For the rest of June, July, and August, I will explore the various meanings and applications of this concept, and what its practice teaches me.

To me, “Holding the Space” means slowing down. It means being with things the way they are, without rushing to criticize, blame, judge, intervene, reject, fix, suppress, resolve, deflect, escape, annihilate, deny, or ignore.  When we practice Holding Space, we allow more.  We tolerate better.  We find peace.  For an excellent description of the practice as it relates to caregiving, see here.

The concept has swirled in my mind almost nonstop these last few months. It’s triggered mostly when I see conflict and controversy, and also in times of transition, challenge, agitation, growth, and uncertainty.  I have referenced it in my writing before, sometimes using the actual words, other times alluding indirectly.  Here are some recent examples:

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/04/29/atozchallenge-withhold-judgment/

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/04/20/atozchallenge-opposition-and-openness/

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/04/01/assumptions-and-appreciation/

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/11/19/look-for-the-helpers/

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/11/11/reconciliation-is-for-kids/

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/10/27/he-for-she-we-for-us/

My purpose in this series is to share personal reflections on Holding Space, as I grapple with important social, professional, and personal questions. As I wrote in my previous post, I may venture into controversial territory, but my intent is not to argue a particular position.  I wish, as always, to focus on relationships.

Please join me on this journey. Solitary reflection is helpful and necessary, but it’s almost always more fun to welcome companions on the expedition.

 

 

 

#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?