On Malice, Validation, and the Butterfly Effect

A mash-up quote; still helpful.
Image from https://www.facebook.com/BlessedAreTheWeird/posts/i-like-this-whoever-wrote-itupdate-appears-to-be-a-translation-of-text-from-the-/947443432078922/
Likely sources: https://merrimackvalleyhavurah.wordpress.com/2018/06/23/fake-news-fake-quotes/

Friends, here is my latest confluence of ideas for making a more lovingly connected world, from three articles I have read this month:

Malice

Readers of this blog may know that I’m a big fan of David French. He writes columns for The Atlantic and The Dispatch, and serves the latter as senior editor. He is politically conservative and one of my intellectual role models. Last weekend he posted an article, “A Blow Against the Malice Theory of American Politics,” which I highly recommend. Some highlights:

“Negative polarization (or negative partisanship), as I’ve written many times, is the term for politics that is fundamentally motivated by animosity for the other side more than affection to your own party’s leaders or ideas. 

“Under the malice theory, the key to electoral victory is unlocking that anger. That means highlighting everything wrong with your opponents. That means hyping their alleged mortal threat to the Republic. Because of pre-existing animosity, your message will fall on fertile soil.

“In this context, it’s easy to see how kindness and graciousness are seen as weakness, or at least as a lack of conviction.”

Basically, if we think of our political opponents as a ‘them’, an other, we make them an abstraction. If we paint them with broad brushes in various shades of ‘evil,’ then we make ourselves fundamentally susceptible to tyrants who manupilate that fear and hatred for their own purposes. We follow blindly out of emotional hijack, deluding ourselves that we are being totally rational. The ultimate tool of such tyrants is dehumanization, making ‘the other’ a thing rather than a person, something we could not possibly relate to or care for.

Validation

One potent antidote to dehumanization and malice politics is emotional validation. I found this article while writing Monday’s post on how to be less shitty to one another. If you read any of the essays from this post, read this one! More highlights:

“Emotional validation is the process of learning about, understanding, and expressing acceptance of another person’s emotional experience. Emotional validation is distinguished from emotional invalidation, when a person’s emotional experiences are rejected, ignored, or judged.

“Validating an emotion doesn’t mean that you agree with the other person or that you think their emotional response is warranted. Rather, you demonstrate that you understand what they are feeling without trying to talk them out of or shame them for it.”

When we talk about people on the ‘other’ side of politics from us, what do we say? Do we speak in generalizations? Do we assume nefarious motives, declaring that they are just bad people? Maybe we say we ‘can’t imagine,’ ‘don’t understand’ how anyone would vote the way they do? What assumptions do we make about how they live their lives and how it must be completely different from us? Validation requires us to put down these generalizations and see each other as individuals, humans, people with whom we are in relationship (and we are all in relationship)–to move in closer, as Brene Brown asks us to do. It’s a practice in empathy and ultimately, a neutralizer of negative partisanship.

Why should we validate one another’s emotions? Because it helps us connect, especially across difference. When we feel validated, we let our guard down. When we feel seen, we de-escalate. Then we are more likely and able to engage in discussions, even disagreements, with more openness and curiosity, respect and collaboration. But someone has to take the first step on the path to de-escalation, to lead by example and invitation.

The Butterfly Effect

In my Quirky Nerd post, I mentioned this idea at the end, in passing. I like to include links to interesting ideas, and found the essay on Farnam Street by Shane Parrish and/or his team. Parrish hosts The Knowledge Project, one of my favorite podcasts. Ever since learning about the self-organizing nature of culture, I have felt validated (ha!) and increasingly confident to point out how the impact of any given node in any system both impacts and is impacted by that system–because everything is connected! I define myself as a node, and I am a member of multiple systems at once (we all are). Some systems are nested (family, neighborhood, city, state, nation); some overlap (Chinese-Americans, physicians, working moms). Looking from the most complex and simultaneous perspective, we can then see how the state or movement of any one node may have direct and indirect ripple effects that propagate and eventuate in dramatic multi-systemic change.

Or, it may not. It’s a paradox–anything you and I do can have transformative effects or no effect at all. I wrote about this as the Optimistic Nihilist. From Farnam Street: ” John Gribbin writes in his cult-classic work Deep Simplicity, ‘some systems … are very sensitive to their starting conditions, so that a tiny difference in the initial ‘push’ you give them causes a big difference in where they end up, and there is feedback, so that what a system does affects its own behavior.’

“We like to think we can predict the future and exercise a degree of control over powerful systems such as the weather and the economy. Yet the butterfly effect shows that we cannot. The systems around us are chaotic and entropic, prone to sudden change. For some kinds of systems, we can try to create favorable starting conditions and be mindful of the kinds of catalysts that might act on those conditions – but that’s as far as our power extends. If we think that we can identify every catalyst and control or predict outcomes, we are only setting ourselves up for a fall.”

My point here is that when I start to feel too small to make a difference, I just remember my role as node. I may not see the waves that my attitude, words, actions and relationships create in the world. But I believe wholeheartedly that I can and do make a difference–a big one, potentially. I just don’t know exactly which day, which conversation, which post, which relationship will incite the shifts I agitate to make–toward mutual understanding, accpetance, cooperation, and connection. Thus, anything and everything I do matters, so I keep it up. I commit to playing the infinite game of human connection, and my just cause is to de-escalate, defuse, and disarm us, in service of interpersonal peace. But anything I do could not matter at all, so I don’t have to burden myself with perfection and exhaustive hamster wheeling.

It’s a perfectly joyous paradox.

Thanks for reading to the end of this long one, folks. Past the halfway mark of 30 days, woohoooooo! I’m still having a lot of fun, hope you are, too!

Peace out, my peeps—ODOMOBaaT.

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ODOMOBaaT

NaBloPoMo 2021:  Do Good, Kid

Day 30!!  Thank you to all readers, and my fellow challenge tacklers, check them out–

Nancy over at Thoughts From the Back,

My fellow woman physician writer at Passion…unbridled, and

One of the most voracious readers alive, Love 2 Read 365!

Life is such a beautiful, terrifying, awesome, and dynamic balance of so many things, no?  I want this, the last post of a 30 day challenge with special meaning, to shine as a worthy conclusion!  I also want to have fun writing it, relieve myself of perfectionist pressure to ‘produce’.  If I had infinite time and inspiration (and required no sleep), I could write so many more ethical earworm posts, right?

Always Do Your Best—If You Can Figure Out What That Means

Sacrifice, But Not Too Much

Vet Your Sources

Nod to the Cosmos

Forgive Yourself

Find A Why

What else?

What a long, strange trip—the past month, the last two years—life. I bought a customized ring with ‘one breath’ imprinted, to help me remember to stay in the moment, to ground. I like it, and ordered three more for friends also weathering hard times. I still fall down—catastrophize and freak out so much more than I want to admit. I can find peace, then it escapes me. But my friends refer to the ring and remind me: One Day, One Moment, One (deep) Breath at a Time—ODOMOBaaT. Maybe it was my subconscious finding the win-win, sharing a centering life mantra with dear friends, so they could then reflect it back to me? Nice, how that works out.

Do you wonder about Sven? Happily, I can report that it is alive and well on the bottom shelf of the fridge. I continue to learn and experiment, to growl in frustration and keep trying—I will get the hang of this one day! Meanwhile, a little yeast assisted sourdough (YASD) makes for fluffy loaves that family and friends enjoy. And what am I after more here, mastering a challenge, or sharing yum with loved ones? It’s both and, of course, but when push comes to shove, I can let up on perfecting Sven bread (for now) and simply enjoy serving something warm that brings folks together in love and connection. ODOMOBaaT.

Will I have done enough for Son to launch into independence by next fall? What’s around the corner for Daughter, Hubs, MaBa, Sibs, my three friends, work? Am I aging okay? When will I finally feel solid in these healthier eating habits? How can I write daily and get enough sleep, OMG? When will we finally arrive at some stability and equilibrium with COVID? How can I help people treat one another with more curiosity, kindness, generosity, humility, openness, and love? ODOMOBaaT.

Self-awareness, self-regulation, connection.  It’s all an ongoing practice, an infinite game, no question. 

Our challenges loom.  Our gifts can shine, proliferate, amplify, and overcome—if we work together.  So much to do, so little and so much time, infinite chances—every encounter, every breath an opportunity.  Onward in solidarity!

As Mary Oliver asks, what will we each do with our ‘one wild and precious life’?  We don’t have to decide right this minute.  OD.OM.OB,aaT.  It will all be okay.

Commit and Flex

NaBloPoMo 2021:  Do Good, Kid

How do you see the relationship between commitment and flexibility? 

Son submits college applications in the coming weeks. I worry that he puts too much pressure on himself to choose the ‘right’ school (I assume that he will have choices), as if so many permanent things depend on this one life decision. In truth, this door swings two ways, not just one way. He is thoughtful and self-aware, and will make a conscious decision. Then I hope he immerses himself in his chosen school, goes all in with classes, clubs, culture, and people. There is always the risk that it won’t be a good fit, despite all of his efforts and intentions. And it will be okay; he can change schools, take a year off, study abroad—so many options!

Two friends in medical school graduated at the top of our class and matched in general surgery residencies.  They both hated it.  One is now a neonatologist, the other a pathologist.  My residency classmate left in the middle of our intern year because her husband’s job required them to move.  They all committed and flexed.

In science and medicine, we often think we know something.  We study, analyze, discuss, and conclude.  We sometimes make sweeping changes in decision making based on the evidence to date (think hormone replacement therapy, cancer screening, and baby aspirin, for example).  But we don’t stop monitoring.  We keep asking questions.  Sometimes what we thought we knew turns out to be wrong, and we must step back and change direction.  It’s not because we were stupid, or because we had some nefarious intent.  We simply can’t see the whole picture sometimes, and still have to act, so we do the best we can with what we have.  And we must be willing to change both our minds and our actions when we learn and know better. 

In The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek discusses the idea of existential flexibility, which he defines as “the capacity to make a dramatically huge strategic shift in an entirely new direction to advance our cause.”  We flex in actions while maintaining steadfast commitment to our purpose and mission. He gives examples of companies who did this successfully (Apple), and who did not (Kodak). 

For myself and so many of my patients, we must constantly commit and recommit to our health habits and practices. The method I used to lose 25 pounds in 9 months when I was 34 does not feel feasible now that I’m 48. I recently read a Noom article on decision making that resonated deeply (I have no interests in this business). “Make a choice and move forward with conviction. Prepare to be wrong. Be ready to pivot. And be willing to make a different decision. You can always make a different choice.”

Whether it’s suffering, fun, college, residency, clinical guidelines or mindful eating, we get to choose.  Doing the same thing over and over again is totally okay, and so is changing.  It’s just much better if we are actually choosing either, and that we know why.