Holding the Space for Connection Through the Hard Conversations, Part II

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Today I watched this video of Trump supporters at his rallies.  Their words, actions, and expressions represent the basest human emotions.  I posted the video to my Facebook page, commenting:

(Donald Trump incites rage and hate) in his followers. He stokes the worst in people. He provokes the emotional states that preclude rational thought and reasonable behavior–he is the king of emotional hijacking. Nobody ever makes a good decision while emotionally hijacked; that is when relationships and connection are destroyed, often violently and permanently.

And here’s another irony:  We non-supporters are similarly hijacked by his belligerence.  He and his supporters incite us to rail against them all, collectively and wholly as individuals, as racists, bigots, idiots, haters, etc.  Name-calling is the easiest and most convenient way to separate ourselves from what we disdain, what we fear, and what’s too uncomfortable to tolerate.  But how does this help anything?

On my last blog post I wrote:

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.

Today I wrote about Trump’s supporters:

I’m trying not to label and pigeon-hole these people, trying not to judge them and discard them, just by what I see here.  That only advances the exact mentality I seek to reverse: more separation, more hatred, more “you are less than me, you don’t matter.”

I guess I have to keep reminding myself.

I can hardly imagine what it would be like to sit down, one-on-one, with someone who sincerely supports a Donald Trump presidency, and have a conversation about it.  But I can easily imagine talking to a Trump supporter about the trials and joys of parenting, the breakneck evolution of technology, and a mutual love of Marvel movies.  Who knows, maybe I already do.

I think most of my friends know my political persuasion.  Most of them also share it.  But probably more than I realize don’t share it, and we avoid talking about it.  Why?  Because it’s uncomfortable.  We don’t trust ourselves to avoid the emotional hijacking.  We’re afraid we’ll say something we’ll regret and damage the relationship.  Or (and), we see the only objective of such conversations as trying to change the other person’s mind, or having our mind changed, which feels at the same time futile and scary.  So our avoidance of the hard, uncomfortable conversations is an attempt to maintain connection (with ourselves as well as one another).  We intrinsically understand that our relationships are important.  So we limit our conversations to topics on which we agree.

At this time in our human evolution, however, we are called to do more.  It’s too easy to live in the echo chambers of like-minded friends and media sites.  It’s too easy to filter our perceptions through repetition and reinforcement, to think that our point of view is the only one, or worse, the only right one.  It’s too easy to label others as wholly racist, sexist, bigoted, idiotic, communist, misogynist, mindless, right-wing, extremist, or evil, based on impulsive interactions in comment sections on a blog or Facebook post.  It is simply too easy to fall victim to premature judgment and conviction based on skewed and incomplete evidence.  We are called to so much more.  We are called to the hard conversations, the interactions that require effort and persistence.  Why?  Because the rewards of this work are understanding, compassion, empathy, connection, and love.

My friend wrote to me, “We have to do this work for your beautiful children.”  Yes, my dear friend, for all of our beautiful, innocent children.  Let us model for them what it means to Hold the Space for Connection, even, and especially, when it’s hard.  This is the work we are called to do.

Holding the Space for Connection Through the Hard Conversations, Part I

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Hello again, friends!  I hope this post finds you happy, peaceful, and connected to the most important people in your life.  Looking back on the 26 days since my last post, I can honestly say that the last is always true, but not necessarily the first two.  Often these weeks, I feel challenged, tested, vexed, and conflicted.

Last weekend I had two prolonged and agonal Facebook conversations with one friend.  Tears were shed, consciousness distracted, identity challenged.  Suffice it to say, my friend persisted in his noble effort to help me look deeper into myself.  He helped (goaded?) me out of my comfort zone, challenging me to really empathize with the suffering of others, specifically of blacks in America—to put myself in their shoes, something I may have never truly done before, or a least don’t do often enough, I’m humbled to say.

I have always thought of myself as an empathetic person.  I can almost always relate to my friends’ and patients’ stories of loss, struggle, and suffering.  I can imagine, one-on-one, how I would feel in their shoes.  But I have also been careful not to say things like “I know how you feel.”  Long ago I learned that those words overstep the boundaries of truly shared experience, and I came to view them as presumptuous and negative.  As a result, I’m quick to acknowledge that though I can usually imagine, I cannot truly know the unique suffering of another.  My dear friend helped me realize last weekend that in my effort to respect and defer to other people’s suffering—again, specifically black people—I inadvertently separate myself from it, and from them.  And that, ironically, undermines the very connection I try so hard to cultivate every day.  I talk and write all the time about our ‘shared humanity.’  But it was not until the hard conversations last weekend that I realized—or was reminded, I’m not quite sure,  maybe I knew before?—what that phrase truly means.  Because of him I’m now far less likely to see current events as happening to Muslims, Blacks, or Asians, but rather as happening to fellow humans.  I have always understood this intellectually, but now I feel it, emotionally, viscerally.  And maybe that is where true understanding originates.  I am so grateful for this insight.

My last post was about listening…  Rereading it and looking back now, I see that in my Facebook conversations last weekend, I sought initially to be heard more than to hear.  And that’s okay.  Sometimes we need to stand up for ourselves and in our own truth, at the same time that we Hold Space for others.  Fortunately, both my friend and I stuck with the hard conversations, striving to be heard, eventually also listening (reading), and in the end we both felt understood and accepted.  It was painful and frustrating, and totally worth the investment.  Our newly deepened relationship will synergize our respective efforts to make the world better—we have pushed each other higher, we are stronger, because we are connected.

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#AtoZChallenge: Every Day A Revolution

Brad Paisley is one of my favorite celebrities. I like him as a person because he likes to have fun and he doesn’t take himself too seriously.  I like his songs because they tell fun stories and also address social issues like racism, sexism, and domestic violence.  I also admire how he uses language and double entendres.  His song “Welcome to the Future” describes how the world has changed over the decades.  From having to go to an arcade to play Pac-Man to having it on his phone; from fighting the Japanese in World War II to collaborating with companies in Tokyo.  He also references the civil rights movement.  One of the lines sings, “He-e-e-y, every day’s a revolution.”

Every day the earth makes one turn on its axis; things keep moving as they always have. It can feel pretty mundane, or utterly reassuring.  On the other hand, every day there may be another kind of revolution, defined by Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary as “activity or movement designed to effect fundamental changes in the socioeconomic situation.”  I love this dual meaning of the word, as well as the word itself—it rolls off the tongue, strong and steady.  Revolution requires an axis, a center.  A globe rotates steadily, stable in particular dimensions.  On the other hand, social (or personal) revolution requires destabilization, transition, and transformation.

Newton’s law of inertia states that an object at rest tends to stay at rest, unless acted upon by an unbalanced, external force. Inertia relates to the status quo, the way things are and have always been.  An external force does not appear out of nowhere; it must have a source.  When it meets the stationary object, potential energy is converted to kinetic energy—it generates movement.  Once set in motion, the object tends to stay in motion, and voila, progress.  Similarly, chemical reactions require a threshold activation energy to proceed.  Molecular force mounts almost imperceptibly until that threshold is reached, and then the reaction ensues spontaneously, sometimes spectacularly.

Progress can be at once incremental and radical. Considering women’s suffrage, civil rights, and gay marriage, for example, history shows us long arcs of people laboring tirelessly for causes over generations, leading finally to pivotal and critical policy changes.  In the first two cases, expansive movements of inclusion have allowed all of us to benefit from the talent, participation, and contributions of formerly excluded and oppressed groups.  Like the turning of an incandescent light bulb, gently, patiently, and consistently in one direction, the steady work of activists eventually leads to sudden and intense illumination.  Darkness becomes light, cold spaces are warmed.

This is the kind of Revolution I seek.

 

#AtoZChallenge: Assumptions and Appreciation

Welcome to my first attempt at the Blogging A to Z Challenge!  26 posts in April, one for each letter of the alphabet (I get one day off per week).  I will explore meaningful words to apply to perceptions, attitudes, behaviors, and relationships. It’s a personal journey, part of my mission of self-assessment and development through writing.  Thank you for stopping by, and please feel free to comment! 🙂

 

Yoga instructors. Football players.  ER nurses.  Asian college students.  Old white men.

Hold these likenesses in your mind’s eye for a moment. Who do you see?

Was the yoga instructor a man or woman? The football player?  It’s impossible not to make assumptions, to apply stereotypes.  Such constructions help us make sense of the world.  They allow us to move through countless human encounters quickly and automatically.  And, they can limit us far more than we realize.

One spring day my kids and I sat in the car, waiting to exit the parking lot after church. Three men, Caucasian, in their 60s, crossed in front of us.  They were well-groomed and overweight—grandpas, likely.  Their expressions were neutral, absorbed in conversation.  One of them looked a little winded from walking.  They were perfectly unremarkable, and they did not notice us.

I felt an acute flash of fear.  It was visceral, as if, at any moment, they could decide that my kids and I were not worthy of being at that intersection, and that they somehow had the power to impact my life in ways that I could not control or influence.  Three apparently unassuming white men.   Fascinating.

I remembered this story when a friend and colleague recently shared this blog post on our assumptions about surgeons.  I realized that despite being married to a surgeon, having multiple surgeon friends, and trying every day to live with an open mind, I still ascribe to the stereotype of the mean surgeon.  It comes out when I hang up the phone after a pleasant conversation with an ENT fellow.  “Wow, he was so nice,” I think, surprised.  Or when I feel righteously annoyed after a terse and condescending interaction with his attending.  “What do you expect,” I say to myself, “he’s a(n old, white, male) surgeon.”  Nobody would ever say that about a pediatrician.

I don’t shame myself for harboring the mean surgeon and old white men stereotypes. They were born of a certain reality and make me appropriately cautious in new situations.  I don’t think I behave badly because of them, and I readily acknowledge when the stereotypes are broken.  But the realization that I hold these assumptions so deeply—subconsciously—gives me pause.  What other assumptions do I carry, and how do they limit my relationships?  I think it’s fair to say that we all carry shards of racism, classism, and other forms of blatant prejudice.  Here’s what I also think:  It’s okay.  We can’t help it, that’s just how it is.  Denying it just makes it that much more insidious, subversive, and toxic.  I’m prejudiced, you’re prejudiced, we’re all prejudiced.  The more we say it, the less scary it gets.  The first step is acknowledgement without shame.

But we cannot, and must not, stop there. We can’t only say, “We can’t help it, that’s just how it is.”  We must take the next step, which is to manage it better.

I think an excellent antidote to toxic assumptions is appreciation.

Dictionary.com includes the following definitions of appreciate:

  1. To regard highly; place high estimate on: to appreciate good wine.
  2. To be fully conscious of; be aware of/ detect: to appreciate the dangers of the situation.

Let us first fully appreciate (be aware of/detect) the scope of our prejudices: Their cultural, familial, or experiential origins, their subtle influence on our perceptions, and the covert ways they manipulate our thoughts, words, and actions toward others.  Awareness is key.  It is also hard.  It’s hard because we know we shouldn’t be prejudiced, it’s bad.  Prejudiced people are bad, they do bad things, we don’t want to be like them; if we admit our prejudices then that means we are bad, that we are not worthy.  STOP.  The only way to keep from acting on our negative stereotypes and perpetuating racism and xenophobia is to fully acknowledge their existence and confront them, head on.  They do not define us.  They are not all of who we are and what we stand for.  Their presence does not negate all that is good, generous, and inclusive about us.  AND, they are part of us.  We cannot escape them by way of denial.  If we can call ourselves out honestly, lovingly, and with forgiveness, we can then integrate our prejudices, and put them in their place.  Appreciation does not mean approval of, or abject subjugation by, our biases.  It is simply the first step to living wholly, to knowing and owning all of ourselves, and moving with intention and mindfulness.

Then, let us apply the other definition of appreciation to others. Let us regard more highly those whom we may automatically, however subtly, belittle in our subconscious.  How might we do this?  Look for that which we share.  She is a mom.  She must love her kids as much as I love mine.  What are their circumstances, what lessons is she trying to teach them, and what would I do in her place?  Why did he become a doctor?  He must want to help people like I do.  I could never do what he does, so high risk, so much responsibility.  God bless him, we need people like him.

Let us then solidify the process with words, out loud. “I can tell you really love your son.”  “Thank you for caring so much about our patient.”  It may sound trite, even silly, at first.  But we can never underestimate the impact of a few kind words, not just on others, but on ourselves.  When I acknowledge myself in you, I make a connection.  I see you, I recognize you, I appreciate you, as I do myself.  Prejudice thrives in silence and denial.  It cannot long survive being spoken out loud and it certainly withers in the presence of true connection.

We will always make assumptions.  Tempered with some well-placed appreciation, though, perhaps we can get through life with a little more love and a little less suffering.