We met just as I was leaving my last practice 7 years ago, and I knew right away I had to grow this relationship. She is an elder sister in the profession—a wise, compassionate, generous, empathic, smart, thoughtful, and loving physician and teacher. After I had the privilege of presenting to her and her amazing colleagues on physician burnout (really, they schooled me that day), Liz showed me the inner world of primary care in a correctional facility. We toured incredibly aged buildings. Liz explained the frustrating limitations of working in a jail environment and the difficulties arranging optimal follow up when detainees are released. But most of all, she showed me what true, deep respect for every person’s dignity, no matter how vulnerable, looks like. Holy cow, I will never forget that day.
Liz is also a deeply spiritual person. She wrote the chapter on spiritual resources for Jewish healthcare professionals in Judaism and Health. After our day together at the jail, we kept trying to meet again. I wanted to learn more about Judaism and how she lived it—personally, professionally, and in community. But my kids were little and the weather was bad on the nights we planned to meet, or something would come up, or- or- or… It just never worked out. But as physicians of deep faith, we both always knew we would connect again someday.
We kept in touch all these years mostly through occasional emails, and then YAY Facebook, especially the Physician Moms Group! By far the most valuable thing about social media is sharing photos and reading life updates. It really makes you feel like you’re in your friends’ lives up close, going through all the ups and downs, sharing joys and sorrows, witnessing from afar. When I posted recently about a freak out I had over Daughter’s anaphylactic food allergy, Liz reached out.
We met in her neighborhood, which happens to be my old college stomping grounds. We walked all over campus and caught up, shared stories, commiserated, and bonded, just like we always knew we would. I got a copy of the book with a bonus printout of her favorite poem, “The Seven of Pentacles” by Marge Piercy. I will return the love with my favorite book of poems so far, To Bless the Space Between Us by John O’Donohue.
The space between us, indeed. So near, just across town, yet so far, 7 years, and yet so near still, always connected in spirit through the years, light and strong, like dental floss or fishing line… We stayed connected, patiently, faithfully, knowing that divinity operates on its own schedule, and that when we could finally meet again, it would be powerful and lovely.
And so it was.
It will not be another 7 years, this we know. And it was well worth the wait.
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.
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?
One of the great cartoons involves two goldfish in a tank talking to one another. One responds in surprise, “wait, there’s water?”
When we don’t see the water, it’s a sign we’re benefitting from being part of the dominant culture.
Visit a country where they don’t speak English and you’ll probably remind yourself all day that you speak English, something you didn’t have to think about last week. You’ll have to work overtime to understand and communicate. Back home, that stress disappears.
Living within a dominant culture means being reminded of this all day, every day.
It reminded me of the famous 2005 commencement address given by David Foster Wallace, the transcript of which was later published, entitledThis Is Water. He admonishes graduates of Kenyon College to open their eyes and minds to the automatic, mindless ways they make meaning from mundane life experiences, to acknowledge and exercise keen awareness of the inescapable interconnectedness of humanity (my interpretation):
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
I started to think and wonder… For cisgender, white, Christian men (CWCM), the dominant culture in the United States, the ‘rise’ of ‘other groups’ to ‘power’ can be understandably threatening–Black Brown Asian Gay Trans Muslim Female Other…
But there are CWCM who seem not to feel threatened, and who actively ally/accomplice to help other groups rise, to help them claim agency and work toward inclusion and equity. They are what I imagine Chip and Dan Heath might call the ‘bright spots’ (see Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard) of the Patriarchy.
While engaging (fighting, overcoming) those who resist, why not also study and amplify those who assist?
What is it about these men, their networks, their environment, or whatever else, that facilitates their allyship with marginalized, non-dominant-culture people and groups?
Or even better, how does their conversion occur? How do they overcome the perceived threat, conscious or not, to see the benefits of equality, and then join the fight to advance it? What happens there, and how can we replicate and scale that conversion?
Last week on vacation I started reading Four Days to Change by Michael Welp, recommended to me by a wise old white man. Welp and his partners run the White Men’s Caucus, the flagship retreat program of White Men as Full Diversity Partners. As I understand it, the organization strives for exactly this conversion of awareness, enlightenment, and action. On retreat, white men are provided the space and safety, as well as the excruciating challenge, to explore, without shame or suppression, their personal and shared experience of cultural privilege, entitlement, and responsibility. I have a feeling this will be a transformational book for me, a cisgender, East Asian, Cathuddhist woman. How’s that for intersectionality?
The author, speaking to White Men’s Caucus attendees: “’If we created most of the institutions we dwell in today, they are going to reflect our culture. But we don’t see this cultural water we swim in because we never have to leave it. So we equate it with just being a good human. Others assimilate into it, so it looks to us like it’s everyone’s culture.’”
He goes on to list the ‘core threads of the fabric of white male culture in the United States’ (how do they land on you?):
Low Tolerance of Uncertainty
Action over Reflection
Rationality over Emotion
Time Is Linear & Future Focused
Status & Rank over Connection
After discussion with participants he notes, “’Notice that the guys who bring the skills less emphasized in the culture can more quickly identify how the culture works against them. You might imagine the same experience for women and people of color.’ …It’s even more critical in today’s global world that we as members of the dominant group understand our water.” I can’t wait to keep reading and see hearts broken open, as Parker Palmer says, to the power and potential of inescapable interconnectedness.
Lastly, I watched again Michael Kimmel’s 2015 TED talk on gender equality. I mentioned it on this blog in 2016, writing about Brock Turner and white male privilege. At 1:08, listen to his story about the moment he realized he was a middle class white man. In 16 minutes, he eloquently addresses gender and racial inequity, with evidence for the myriad societal benefits of dismantling them both. “Privilege is invisible to those who have it… It is a luxury, I will say to the white people sitting in this room, to not have to think about race every split second of our lives.” It’s the water we swim in. To white men the water is body temperature, almost like a sensory deprivation river, holding them up, always flowing in the direction of their dreams and aspirations, never a hindrance. For too many others, it’s exactly the opposite.
It’s not that we should make water harder for CWCMs to swim. It’s that white men can and must learn to see how the water hinders so many others, and then use their advantages to help those who struggle. The collective benefits far outweigh the costs, as Kimmel describes. The perceived personal risks loom large, however, and it’s ever clearer to me that only white men can truly lead other white men to overcome their visceral, existential risk aversion.
I’m still figuring out my own role in all of this Work. I trust that I will know soon enough.