Letter to Self, November 4, 2020

Dear Cathy,

HOLY COW what a year, amIright?  How are you?  What was yesterday like?  I know you wanted to sign up to work the polls, and decided to be at work with your team instead.  Maybe they didn’t need you, but you thought it was right.  What was the vibe, could you feel the pulse? 

How have you observed people holding their own stuff together, and helping others do the same?  How have you done this… and not?  What do you need right now?  What does the family need?  And your teams?  Friends?  Leaders?

Today is your friend’s birthday, make sure you call her. 

And maybe keep the calendar clear this weekend (except for that alphabet workout on Sunday, of course).  Give yourself and the family time and space to breathe and settle down.  There may not be an outcome for a while—it’s anybody’s guess at this point!  It’s all so nuts.  Whatever happens, we must find a way to recover and reconnect; this is imperative.

How will you conduct yourself in the coming months, regardless of the outcome? 

Looking back, you have learned and matured much in the past 4 years—STRONG WORK, MAMA!  Haha, finally, I get to say this to myself. 😉  Remember when you could not help but RAGE and YELL on Facebook, when you succumbed to impulsive ad hominem, then felt helpless and exhausted?  The exhaustion feels different this time, no?  It has more meaning, more purpose.  Because you have done the inner work to show up as your better self.  You have reflected, consulted, read, challenged, practiced, rejected, regulated, and engaged.  You’ve also basked in the nourishing light and warmth of mentors and role models, showing you the value and fruits of magnanimity and grace.

You participated better this time.  You wrote and mailed postcards.  You phone banked to fellow Chinese Americans.  You focused more on what you’re for than what you’re against.  Most of all, you did your best to elevate conversations.  You seek the Strong Middle, where people can have heartfelt, empathic, and often uncomfortable conversations, in service of connection.  You compromised none of your core values, and held certain ones in front, like curiosity, kindness, respect, and generosity.  Often such attitudes were not returned, from either ‘the opposition’ or ‘your own side’. 

But you got enough to keep going, and now you’re stronger.  And it’s all stoked the embers of positive change—the rock circle around your inner campfire enlarges.   You’ve found friends who also seek connection across difference.  Together you will create wider space and build a beautiful bonfire—visible from afar, inviting, welcoming, warming, and inspiring.  There’s a knock you can no longer ignore; you are called to do more.

Let this letter serve as your ethos manifesto—a first draft, at least.  When you feel frustrated and hopeless, when all you encounter tell you it’s a lost cause; when you feel attacked and diminished, and tempted to behave badly or give up, read this.

It’s an Infinite Game.  The goal in an infinite game is not to ‘win’; it’s to stay in the game.  Others may play to vanquish you, your cause, or one another.  This will never happen—there will always be new players; the issues, conflicts, and polarities will never go away.  Your job is to modify the game, to make it more humane for all players, while you advance your finite goals.  The costs of playing should not outweigh the rewards as they do today.  You know you can help rebalance, to give voice, strength, and power to those whose Why is connection.  That is how you will leave the game better for having played.

Center.  Ground.  Focus.  Engage.  This mantra served you well for years.  You know your own core values.  Their roots run deep and strong; they hold you up; trust them.  You know the truth of your message, no matter how it gets assailed.  You also draw strength and light from your amazing friends. They will stand by you—and you them—you hold each other up high.  Trust that, too.

No ad hominem.  Your mantra for the past few years:  Present. Open. Grounded. Kind. Loving. Smart.  You can be strong and flexible—strong back, soft front, wild heart, as Joan Halifax and Brené Brown write.  It serves no one for you to engage with negativity.  Firmness, directness, and steadfastness, however, along with fairness, humility, and accountability, will get you far.  Standing in these practices, I am confident you will regret less in the end. 

One Day, One Moment, One Breath at a time.  Everywhere you go, in every challenge, mindfulness emerges as a universal sustaining practice.  You always have your breath.  You can always use it, this quintessential polarity that teaches us about simplicity and infinity.  Lean in to it.  Draw in strength, respire peace.

Finally:  Dance.  Less news.  More music.

You’ got this.

Pre- and Post-op Election Care

Christine Gilmore, “The Path to Peace,” October 2020

Happy Fall, my friends!  Are the leaves near you as brilliant and wakening as they are by me?

This morning I had another Zoom call with my Braver Angels pals Mande and Sharon—we have met monthly since soon after the pandemic’s onset.  I come away feeling seen, valued, and loved every single time.  And we hatch plans to change the world, too—stay tuned. 😉

Mande’s rock star sister hosts “Jeffersonian Dinners,” where friends gather and discuss a meaningful question—a modern day salon—oh, be still my heart.  This week’s question, for the Jeffersonians and me alike:  “After the election, how can we come together?”

Coming together now means connecting and healing.  It means committing to this as work, no more blaming and playing victim.  It means each of us owning our part, because we are all active participants in all of our relationships, and the current state of our culture is the sum total of all of our complex, inextricable relationships. Coming together fosters peace, which I think we all yearn for, especially now.

I believe we cannot die at peace unless we live in peace first, and peace must be cultivated.  A life of peace necessarily embraces openness, curiosity, humility, vulnerability, patience, and generosity.  How lucky I am to know so many models in these domains, like Sharon, who teaches these exact skills—she helps us train.  It’s like prehab—getting the body healthy through clean eating and good sleep before surgery.  Then we build on this foundation in rehab, increasing range of motion as well as both core stability and mobility—think of this as a metaphor for interpersonal encounters and relationships.  It doesn’t just come, even if you’re a natural, and times like this will test your talent as well as your skill.   “If you don’t have the practice then you can’t show up consistently,” Sharon wisely explains.  So what are the practices?

How do you make people feel?

By now you must recognize Maya Angelou’s simple and profound words: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

In these coming weeks and months—actually for the rest of our lives—what if we each attended more to this?  What if we all take responsibility for at least half of how people feel after they encounter us?  And what if we all committed to making every encounter as positive as possible for the other person, ahead of ourselves?  Tonight I will review only two of the myriad practices for pre- and re-hab’ing our ailing culture. 

What are you already doing to make things better?

Listen More Deeply—Much More Deeply 

Listen through the words and beyond your own head. 

The most superficial listening level focuses on what I think of what someone is saying.  I listen to refute and proclaim, to be right, to dominate, to dismiss, and maybe even shame.  Conversations and relationships go south and disintegrate quickly in this scenario.  Yuck. 

We can connect, however, when we start listening holistically to the words, imperfect and inarticulate as they may be, to hear what people think.  How do they perceive, understand, and rationalize (we all rationalize)?  Where, intellectually, do their opinions and positions originate?  This kind of listening can lead to truly curious questioning and when done well, to important insights and deeper understanding.

At the third listening level, where we truly connect personally, we hear how people feel.  Humans are fundamentally emotional beings with the capacity for rational thought, NOT logically thinking beings who happen to have feelings.  If I’m able to hear emotions, then recognize, identify, relate to, and acknowledge them, I diffuse and de-escalate.  This is often the first moment of deep connection in an encounter. 

Lastly, listen for core values.  When conversations escalate and we suffer emotional hijack, often some core value (eg honesty, fairness, integrity, equality) has been violated.  When I recognize this I can then relate and connect, and this mutual understanding almost automatically further de-escalates a conflict.

Elevate Your Opponent’s Humanity

Some years ago driving to work, I saw a young man, maybe in his twenties, cross the street in front of me.  He looked fit, dressed casually, a little scruffy on the face.  Suddenly I saw him not as a pedestrian, or an office worker, or a fellow Chicagoan.  I saw him as a mother’s son.  I wondered to myself, is she thinking of you right now?  I bet she’s proud, no matter what you do.  I hope you carry her love around with you all the time.  I hope it sustains you.  I hope that for my own children.

Listen to Simon Sinek interview Bob Chapman on his podcast about leadership.  Chapman, a father of 6, likens leadership to parenting.  His Why is to make people feel cared for rather than used.  He sees each of his employees as someone’s precious child, and thus someone to be valued and loved, just like he would want his own kids to be treated.

How do we do this?  We recognize people’s strengths.  We acknowledge their core values, we validate their feelings.  We respect their opinions and engage in disagreement with understanding and not ad hominem attacks.  We aim for 5 positive interactions/exchanges for every negative one, to cultivate relationships of deep trust and safety. 

What if we did this with the people who disagree with us?  If we imagine debating someone with each of our parents watching, how would that change the dynamic?  If we truly cared for each other as members of one human family, how much better could this all really be?

I’m thinking hard (and soft) about how best to use my time, energy, creativity, relationships, and writing in these coming months.  We’ve dug ourselves into a great, big, muddy (sh*tty) hole, yes.  And we absolutely can dig ourselves out.  But it will take all of us.  I’ll try to keep reminding us.

The only way out is through.  The best way through is together.

Toxic Individualism and Service

At first I called it ‘abject individualism.’  Not sure which will be my final phrase—which will catch on?  Do you already know what I mean? 

It goes beyond selfishness, really.  It’s a culture, an ethos; it took root somewhere in early American history and has infiltrated the collective psyche with exponential acceleration in my lifetime.  This mindset values winning over service, status over integrity. “Eat What You Kill.” It is myopic, and it so permeates our daily interactions that we hardly even notice.  It steeps us in competition, scarcity thinking, and righteous anger.  Toxic individualism, while not the sole driver, contributes mightily to division, negative tribalism, and violence.

I won’t go into detail here, but I see it in so many realms: media, finance, environment, education, and healthcare, among others.  A cumulative movement in policy and deregulation that favors competition over collaboration, and removes incentives for long term resource renewal and sustainability in favor of short term gains, grips our culture.  It’s all about looking good and getting mine, to hell with everyone else.  Most of us probably don’t identify with this most of the time, but consider how we think and act under stress.  When we feel our own families threatened by circumstances like a pandemic knocking at our door, how did we instinctively respond?  Contract, protect, and suspect.

Of course, this is a natural survival response to threat.  I would never advocate for ridding ourselves of it.  And, when a culture’s balance between self-protection and group connection tips too far and too long toward the former, especially under collective stress, bad things happen.  Successful social living is always a give and take proposition.  In order for us all to be well, we all have to make sacrifices sometimes for the greater good, namely and often first and foremost, our comfort.

I will have facilitated two calls this week on ‘elevating our conversations.’  The central premise is that in order to communicate effectively across differences and disagreements, to problem solve in the face of divergent perspectives, we must tolerate more discomfort than our current cultural ethos often allows.  We must stand in openness, curiosity, humility, generosity, and fairness.  Too often today we are rewarded (instantly gratified) more for standing rather in defensiveness, stubbornness, righteousness, and ad hominem. 

This hyper-individualist attitude translates to the collective:  If you’re not with me (us) all the way, you’re with the enemy.  Dissent within a tribe is quickly suppressed and punished.  It’s us against them, black and white, right against wrong, no exceptions, no nuance, no discussion.

The antidote for this poison is service.  A service mentality puts the collective good at least on even footing with that of the individual, if not elevating it.  Service activities and professions center around giving, selflessness, and responsibility for others.  Teachers, healthcare workers, and military servicemen and women understand this intuitively.  We need one another—for us all to be healthy, we all need to look out for each other, thereby keeping each other healthy—for society, and thus all of its individuals, to truly thrive.

It’s not weak to need others.  Individual strength is necessary, important, and admirable.  So is interdependence, relational connection, and emotional cohesion.

https://www.allysondinneen.com/therapy-great-barrington

Simon Sinek interviews General Stanley McChrystal on his podcast on quiet service .  Their conversation resonates with me so deeply right now.  It’s not either self or group. It is always both and, in dynamic balance, holding tension for some competition, and also much collaboration, creativity, synergy, and progress.  See some highlights of the “A Bit of Optimism” episode below.

What are we each doing to keep the fabric of society from tearing? As we care for ourselves, how can we also care sincerely for others? How will our culture be better for our having lived?

3:34  Sinek suggests that the call to service has declined.  McChrystal:  “That sense of responsibility… has decreased… In some ways you say well, everybody’s their own person…  The problem is it’s hard to run a society like that… It’s hard to have those things which we do better jointly than we do individually.”

4:27  Sinek:  “There’s a paradox to being human…every day we are both individuals but we’re also members of groups, and we have responsibilities to both…  We’re all trying to learn how to take care of ourselves, but where are we learning how to take care of each other?”

5:40  On civilian national service for young Americans, McChrystal:  “You can plant a seed through behavior, getting them to do something for a year… They won’t like it every day, but they’ll come out of it differently,… more thoughtful…  Healthcare, education, the environment… there is so much room for people to give…  and they come out differently themselves—they are the real product.”

7:40  Sinek, on the race to get mine or else someone else will get it, referencing Naval commander David Marqet:  “Force a change in behavior, then people change what they’re thinking,” rather than the othe way around.  McChrystal responds with the example of someone running for public office, asked how they have served.  Sinek:  We should ask of polilticians, do they serve us or do they serve themselves?

11:30  On the push for equality, McChrystal:  “Every young person… should have a roughly equal opportunity in life, should be our goal, shouldn’t be able to argue against that… (13:00) for example healthcare—every American (should have) healthcare not because it’s fair but because it’s smart for society…”

15:35  Sinek:  “How the heck are we going to inspire people to want to do something that comes at personal sacrifice?”  McChrystal:  “I think people want to be inspired… they’re just…waiting to be asked.”

24:33  Sinek on quiet service, humility:  “A lot of the stories you tell are about quiet, and about being humble…  Maybe the lack of service is a symptom that we’ve lost our humility, as individuals, as a nation…”