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

What Emerges from Crisis:  Connection, Learning, and Contribution

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“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?

* * * * * *

 Inconvenient Emotions

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.

* * * * * *

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 beWhat 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.

* * * * * *

Optimism + Cynicism = Peace

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 what is—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.

* * * * * *

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.

What will your contribution be?

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