Tonight’s lesson emerges from my Engaging with Difference class. It’s a classic “Duh-HA!” (Duh + ah-HA!, thank you Tony & Diane!) epiphany, arising from a novel (to me) and profound mindfulness practice that I plan to adopt permanently.
The practice is Critical Moment Dialogue (CMD), developed by the Personal Leadership folks. In a nutshell, when I feel “something’s up,” ie I notice some kind of internal hijack occurring in real time, I can choose to react as usual, or do a CMD and find a better way through.
I reflected on a recent, disconcerting conversation with a colleague. One of the six elements of CMD practice is attending to physical sensation. The Duh-HA occurred when I recalled my desire to raise an eyebrow, cock my head, and curl my lip, which manifested as left temporalis muscle tightening. The CMD exercise helped me understand my subjective experience in that moment: I felt a disconnect. My counterpart and I were enacting our usual misunderstanding pattern. I usually blame him for being vague and self-absorbed, but now I realize that we probably grasp divergent meanings for the words we choose. Just this one insight, in the instant I apprehended it, reoriented my entire attitude toward him and our future conversations.
The next time we meet, I can breathe slower and more deeply, and slacken my jaw. Evoking my commitment to curiosity, I can remember to ask more clarifying questions before making false assumptions and jumping to antagonistic judgments.
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 loving learning lab 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, without also enrolling them in the resistance movement as equals, we also 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 from 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.
“What observations/discoveries/learnings have you noticed in these weeks?”
In phone calls, emails, and snail mail to friends, I find myself asking this question repeatedly. This exercise yields two wins: 1) I’m connecting to my people all across the country; 2) I get to answer for myself, and new insights emerge each time.
How are you connecting with your people in these weeks of physical separation?
What have you had to reframe, create, and experiment with to make life work in our sudden new reality? How does it feel? What are you learning?
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Very early in the pandemic, when I realized my clinical volume would drop to practically nothing, I started to feel something akin to survivor’s guilt. I still feel it—I am not on the front lines; I myself am not in harm’s way, as so many of my colleagues are. I feel relief for not having to be there (yet). Then I feel guilty for feeling relieved. So I try to make myself useful, giving Zoom presentations on wellness to colleagues and firesides on Instagram for the public. Life has settled into something of a routine. I do video calls, helping with operations management and team organization from an armchair (standing desk). Turns out I enjoy working from home! And I feel guilty for enjoying anything about this time of unprecedented global disruption. Hello, mental and emotional whiplash, my inescapable human companion. Thankfully, self-compassion practice keeps me sane.
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Acceptance with Agency
“The first step to changing your circumstances is to accept them.” Wut? I have grappled for years to understand this concept; today I think I finally got it (thank you, Donna!).
Today I choose to define acceptance as a state of possibility, rather than of resignation or victimhood. Sometimes it helps to describe something by pointing to its opposite: What happens when we refuse to accept what is? Often we cling to what we think should be. What should be is a narrow set of unmet expectations that keeps us anchored to the past, or at least to an unreality that simply does not exist.
What happens when we finally accept what is? We are liberated to ask some important questions: How do I feel about what is? What are the best and worst potential outcomes from here? What do I want to be different? How can I effect that change? What is my work here?
Accepting what is brings us over the threshold from the narrowness of what should be to the wide possibility of what could be, where our agency is what we make of it.
Some days I get so excited, reveling in human ingenuity and resilience! Look at the transitions we all made, practically on a dime, moving healthcare and education online, organizing COVID testing and creating treatment protocols, constructing hospital wards in convention centers, initiating clinical trials, and sharing experience and data internationally at breakneck speed! All this learning and application, holy cow, how could we not be smarter, more connected, and better after all of this?
By being human, that’s how. Despite our great capacity for survival and adaptation, we are creatures of habit and products of our environments and relationships. We revert more easily than we convert. On cynical days I think, “Nothing will change. We will stay the same stupid species we have become, just a couple hundred thousand deaths closer to our own stupid, eventual extinction. And we will deserve it.”
Here’s the fascinating thing, though: I vacillate in this false dichotomy lightly, even though the emotions on both sides can get intense. We humans are such a complex enigma, capable of profound love and selflessness, and also unfathomable hatred and destruction. That’s simply whatis—we are all of these things, intricately complicated in our nature. Each one of us possesses an infinite set of potential vectors for connection and/or destruction. But I still get to choose what to do with my time, energy, and resources in this lifetime. It’s my call. So I’m okay; I’ got this.
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Co-Creation: The New Normal
The last two years I have had the privilege to work with colleagues around our vision, mission, and values. I have studied various work cultures, observed and interviewed associates and teammates. LOH taught me the language and framework to synthesize my own, evolving style of relational leadership. During this downtime—this unearned vacation—I have time and space to consider a bigger picture. What about our culture best manifests our mission and values? How did this facilitate our successes in reorganization and mobilization? What held us back? What needs to happen (change?) in order for us to emerge from this crisis in learning and growth, rather than in fear and trauma? These questions apply professionally, personally, and societally.
My strengths lie in relationship and connection. Throughout this long journey to flatten the curve (and it will be months), I can contribute my insight, observations, and talents at synthesis, creativity and vision, to make our new normal as mindful, intentional, collaborative, and functional as possible. I can paint a vivid picture of where we could go. I can embrace dissenting voices and find alignment in apparently divergent interests. I can help us be better. This is the contribution I can make.