I’ve had a dilemma for several years now.
I love growing food. I love the magic of start-with-nothing, end-with-nourishment. I love growing green things, I love having my hands and feet in the dirt. I do not wear gardening gloves, and I don’t at all mind having grit on my fingers.
There are two catches:
- I’m shit at keeping up with it. As an intensive one of the things I do is work in fits and starts. All enthusiasm for a week, and then forget for a month. I need a timer if there’s going to be watering, because I will not remember. I won’t weed unless I feel like it. This could mean that the garden is on its own for a long time. Some seasons I’ve dallied and fondled the plants a lot. It all depends
- The groundhog. The one who moved in halfway through my first season in this house, putting his secondary doorway right above my newly turned garden plot.
The solution to (1) is routine, love, not traveling much, and hardy plants.
The solution to (2), I’m told, is a .22, only I don’t have the heart. Or the gun. (The other solution is to surround the garden entirely, even underground, with fencing. Dig down a foot, lay a cattle panel, wire a fence to the cattle panel, and then make sure your fence is four feet tall.)
So for three years I’ve let the garden lie fallow. It was too disheartening to see my pea shoots nipped off at the base, basil chewed to the ground, squash half eaten and left to rot. In that time the raspberries have started to take over (if anyone knows what to do about them, please let me know) and only the little circle of herbs at the center of the plot has really persisted. There, the more fragile herbs died back this winter, unprotected by snow, but the chives are taking over and the lemon oregano is determinedly carrying on.
I want to replace the lavender, the sage, and the rosemary. I’d like to add dill and coriander. The groundhog seems to prefer lighter flavors.
But my real love is the idea that everything we tend, every bit of yard or garden, could be useful. The Washington Post recently ran this article on historic gardening which I devoured, but even better, imagine if nearly all the pretty things also healed, or tasted good, or…had some use.
As it turns out, the pretty, sustainable, yummy things also do not require fencing for protection from the wild.
In fact, my yard is already planted with some, which the groundhog completely ignores.
So in service of the can’t-we-all-just-get-along gardeners in our midst, I’m going to start a list of groundhog resistant plants, meaning that MY groundhog has not seen fit to eat them in four years.
- Hostas. Edible greens, young or old. Groundhog seems indifferent. So are the skunks, raccoons, and whoever else is visiting my bird feeder. Here’s the article: https://scottishforestgarden.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/hostas/
- Day lilies. NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH REGULAR FLORIST EASTER-and-FUNERAL lilies, which will kill you. Day lilies offer flower buds, flowers, and tubers. Good for food, or the flowers are good as a thickener. Flowers can also be stuffed and/or battered. Article here: http://honest-food.net/2010/06/29/dining-on-daylilies/
- if you plant raspberries once they will take over your LIFE. You have been warned. I am trying to figure out how to kill some of them off, and I am not usually one to kill things.
I will update as I go.
Eating, a pleasure.
Growing your own food, magic.
Not having to go to the grocery store, priceless.
My Facebook and Twitter feeds often offer more interesting news than the newspaper ever did. Today, this article crossed my path, about sexual assault in the music industry:
Here’s my response.
So the problem isn’t just that this happened once, although even once is a major problem. The problem is that this is part of a continuum of inappropriate boundary violation, especially sexual and body-related boundary violation, that starts much closer to home. Even people I like, love, and respect, who like, love, and respect me (and I don’t doubt that they do–or did), have ignored my explicit and clear requests not to do something. Not just the absence of consent, but the explicit statement of nonconsent. They are good people. But somehow our culture teaches them that they will not get what they want if they ask for it–indeed that asking is somehow wrong.
I’m not making this up. Because these are people whom I like and love, I’ve had the conversation with them, more than once, about what happened. I’ve stayed in relationship, stayed in conversation, stayed at the table, because these aren’t strangers, these aren’t scary bosses and obnoxious people on the street (I’ve met them, too, but I have never found an effective way to engage. I’m scared, usually. That’s another post.) What they have somehow come to believe is that if they gently edge their way into the thing they really want, that that’s okay, because they’re going slowly, because they’re giving time for me to say no, because they know that the minute I DO say no, they’ll stop. They’re not Those Guys Over There who rape people. They stop, right? They stop when they hear no.
when they hear no
when they HEAR no. They stop.
gentle does not work. Subtle does not work. Sometimes you have to shout.
That is, sometimes you have to shout at your friend and lover who loves you to get them to stop.
Imagine how it feels when someone who is NOT your friend and lover starts bending the boundaries toward the quick of your spirit. If you shout at them they might stop.
Somehow our culture is teaching our kids, especially boys, that wanting is bad, asking is bad, and that it’s better to just “ask” by gently pushing until something gives.
Add a little power, take away some ethics, and not-so-suddenly, right there, is another step on the continuum. Nice guys breaching boundaries gently become bosses and supervisors breaching boundaries obliviously becomes sexual assault. It’s all of a piece, and it’s all interconnected and it all stacks on itself. So the tiny little comments eat away and eat away and eat away. They’re not microaggressions, they’re something else, but they’re aggressive. And they hurt. And they’re exhausting.
This is more than just a grope.
This is the tip of an iceberg.
Recently, I was waxing poetic about handsaws. Specifically, about my ryoba, a Japanese handsaw that suits my woodworking needs and style to a T.
Like most Japanese hand tools, it’s designed to make good use of your body weight.
It cuts on the pull stroke.
By contrast, most Western saws cut on the push stroke. That makes the work harder:
- A saw that cuts on the push stroke has to withstand a lot of force, so it has to be thick. A thick saw has to remove more wood as it goes, which is more work.
- A saw that cuts on the push stroke requires the user to generate that force, instead of allowing gravity and mass to do the work.
The ryoba allows a short, relatively small, relatively unmuscular person to make the best use of their available resources. The tension that comes from using the pull stroke allows the blade to remain stiff without being thick, so the kerf (the slit left by the saw) is narrower, and less wood is removed. You lean in the right direction, holding the saw in the right way, and the cut happens almost effortlessly. You don’t press the saw down, you simply hold it and allow it to do its work.
This is all true, but it is also a metaphor.
I’ve been “working on my money stuff” for quite a while. There was definitely stuff to work on. But over the years I’ve stripped away the veils and peeled the onion over and over again, looking for the place where the stuff would be resolved and I could move on in maintenance mode. Trouble was, I thought I got there a few years ago, but the expected transformations in the rest of my life weren’t forthcoming.
There are a few reasons for that. I kept digging and found most of them.
But tonight, having been told by my therapist that I really must begin making plans to go to India and not just wishing I could, I realized something else:
all this time I’ve been staring at the money itself, trying to deal with money for money’s sake.
I was pushing away at the saw on principle, because I needed to do it, but there was no larger thing. Wanting to be financially robust was all there was. And when it related to someone else, family or loved one, it had to do with fear of their judgment or repercussions, or fear of loss. My own sense of self was so tattered after a while that while I knew it would feel better to resolve these issues, I couldn’t really imagine it.
But I’ve also been watching my friend Natasha as she raises money to rebuild a village she loves in Nepal. She is there right now, overseeing the beginning of the building. When she decided that Nepal was an important thing, it reversed the direction of force. Instead of pushing from her studio in Brooklyn, she was pulled forward by the force of her dedication and vision of the project in Nepal. It brought her places and got her to do things that became easy because of her motivation, because of who she was working for and why.
She began to cut on the pull stroke.
I think this is critical. When we cut on the pull stroke, we are pulled forward into the next right thing by the natural forces surrounding us. Cutting on the pull stroke allows us to make the best use of the resources we have, rather than wishing we had what we don’t. Cutting on the pull stroke is where we go when we plug into our larger purpose, our deeper meaning, the work we are truly called to do in the world.
Or just something we really, really want.
Cut on the pull stroke, and everything’s easy.
Let nature draw you forward, and the seas part.
Let it begin.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways in which the liberal communities I’m attached to carry bias. Race, class, sure, but also other kinds of bias. This is about our bias against business and money. It was originally a Facebook post, but it got long and I think it needs to be more permanent. In working with a client recently, I was helping to reframe their approach to money, and it got my gears turning.
It’s amazing how much just listening to Wharton’s satellite radio for a couple of years in my car gave me access to a different way of thinking–about money, about corporate structure, about the role of these things in shaping the economy, about responsible structures in capitalism.
And understanding that stuff better, having access to voices and real humans talking about it (mostly Wharton professors, pretty good at explaining stuff) helps expand the repertoire of things I can random-access, which is how I synthesize my learning and make new ideas. It means that my eyes don’t glaze over when I look at a budget sheet; it means that when I want to think about an idea for my business, the spreadsheet helps me evaluate it.
BUT most important is that it breaks down the false barriers. Liberal social-change-oriented people tend to resist talking about or engaging with money or business structures. And it consistently shoots our momentum in the foot. We can’t afford to ignore a huge part of the available data because it…what, makes us uncomfortable? We can’t do it with race, we can’t do it with sex…AND we can’t do it with money. Or profit or business. It’s killing us, and putting us at a huge disadvantage relative to people with less liberal values.
We don’t need to take on the values that stereotypical corporations have in order to use the learning and information they have. But we do need to use every tool that’s out there. Including this one.
Listen to business radio. Get the Wharton channel if you can. (Wharton is a business school; they can’t help being educational. If NPR had a business channel, this is what it would sound like.) Read business and finance magazines. Read critically; look for bias; break down statistics. Don’t just assume it’s good interpretation. But learn how the system works. Then you can use it.
A little humor, with apologies to Mary Oliver:
Why I Wake Early (my life is not a walk in the woods)
Hello, cat in my face
Hello you who make the morning
And the evening and all the days and nights
And ow! Your claw, and the nodding off in the afternoon
While you sleep peacefully in the sun
Even when I am miserable and crochety–
Best motivation that ever was,
Your meowing and this river of red
That threatens to overflow its banks today
Right now, onto these sheets and this duvet
If I do not heed its subtle warning
Get up, get up, good morning.
Watch now, how I start the day
In duress, in bloodiness.
A little bit ago I posted to facebook: “Pleasure is not always comfortable.”
And I got two comments back: “Explain?”
So now that I have some time…
sometimes, pleasure is comfortable.
The stress melts away and your nervous system takes off
for the beach
with a little umbrella.
The sympathetic responses calm down.
You breathe easy.
Life is good.
it’s not like that.
Sometimes it’s more like…
Or jumping into a cold mountain stream.
It’s like waking up to your favorite dog licking your face
or a fuck that feels like a steam train.
Sometimes pleasure is a roller coaster,
or jumping off a cliff to see if you can, in fact,
Pleasure is accomplishing something you didn’t think you could do,
or learning to pole dance with a baby belly,
or figuring out that skinny dipping might be okay,
or talking to that twinkle-eyed person serving tea or tennis balls or time.
Pleasure is making uncomfortable art and sharing it,
or climbing over a chain link fence after getting locked into the garden
because it was such a nice night
and the gnats weren’t bad until the end.
Pleasure is eating bad food in good company
or eating something that you don’t even recognize in a country where you don’t speak the language,
or saying I love you first.
Or saying it at all.
It might be comfortable.
But just as likely
you’re on the skinny branches.
The stars are beautiful out there.
(the kind of enoughness I’m contrasting with here was originated by Jennifer Louden http://jenniferlouden.com/art-of-building-your-truer-life/)
I have often threatened to get a button that says, “This is what a minister looks like.” People don’t expect me to be a minister. More, they expect me NOT to be a minister. Whatever the picture of “minister” in their heads may be, THIS is not it. That might be why I have such a hard time at interfaith clergy gatherings. Like Reid Mihalko, who shows up at business conferences wearing his Sex Geek t-shirt, I’m not what they thought they’d see.
It happens to me a lot, and not just about ministry. Justifying my presence is sometimes fine, and sometimes exhausting, and I do it a lot. I believe in identity-based spaces. I think they’re important.
There’s a fine line between identity and exclusion.
In fact, sometimes it’s not even a line at all.
And sometimes that’s okay.
And sometimes…it’s not.
Let’s face it: humans don’t come in binaries very often. Mostly we come in delightful, complex, multitonal shades of grey. But when we go to create a group, there has to be an out in order for there to be an in. It is necessary that someone not belong.
That not-belonging can be determined in a number of ways, but especially in identity politics it is often determined by–obviously–identity.
Who are you? Who were your parents? Where are you from? What color or language do you claim? Who are you attracted to? Who do you sleep with? What do you do for work?
It all seems very clear. And it all seems very important–for marginalized communities, protected spaces are vital for survival. There’s no question that being among your people is one of the deepest and cleanest breaths of fresh air available.
And then we, even if we are well-intended and well-educated in the ways of oppression, run headlong into the uncertain marshy territory of intersectionality.
Intersectionality is what happens where the ocean meets the grassy plains. Sometimes it’s wet. Sometimes it’s dry. Sometimes you can walk. Sometimes you need a boat. It’s muddy. It’s messy. And where exactly the ocean ends and the marsh begins is really up to judgment and imagination.
And enoughness…becomes a much bigger question.
Am I brown enough? Queer enough? Asian enough? Religious enough?
We end up in a kind of mashup of oppression and identity competitions. But the lines aren’t clear, and are not usually formally drawn. “If you identify as xyz, please come.”
Well I do.
But if I’m dating a cisguy, or I just look like I have a deep tan, or I’m the kind of minister that talks about sex from the pulpit, or if I didn’t struggle to come out, or if I don’t speak Hindi, or I’m an unaccented diaspora child of an educated immigrant…do I belong? Will you let me in? Can I be part of your group, your identity, your movement?
And will I feel any relief there, or will it just be another place in my life where I don’t quite fit in?
The more complicated our outward identities get, the harder it’s going to be for us to hold hard lines. People will show up claiming insider status and we’re going to wonder how that could be true. We’re going to be suspicious. We’re going to wonder if we belong, if they belong, how we can know who belongs.
The concept of identity itself is going to be shaken. Categories are getting complicated and blurry.
Now there’s a danger there, as well as a liberation.
When categories get blurry, individual identity becomes dominant, and with that, prioritizing individual needs over the needs of the group can move from being an imperative to being a tyranny.
That’s another fine line: between seeing that your own needs get met and honoring the trajectory, priority, and process that belongs to the group.
As with inclusion, exclusion, and boundaries, the balance between the two is vital. In both cases, it leads back to the same place:
you have to know yourself well enough to be able to withstand challenges–to your own identity and to your choice of social locations. You have to know yourself. You have to be sure of yourself. You have to be willing to learn and yet you have to be very clear that you are who you are, that you can tolerate not being fully accepted, that you can stand not getting your needs met, that the group can take precedence.
When you spend your life being told that you’re not quite…right…because you’re not the dominant race, culture, gender, age, class, ability, etc, that confidence is hard-won. When you ARE dominant, it comes without thinking. It comes “naturally”, as a gift from the people and culture who form your context.
If you apply that confidence from being dominant in a context where you are not dominant, you can bring down some serious wrath on your own head. But sometimes it’s worth it.
Sometimes it can gain you entry into the space where previously you were denied or merely tolerated. Sometimes, it gives you the power and the voice to change the conversation so it includes you.
Being enough–powerful enough, real enough, marginalized enough, even–is sometimes a matter of saying, “This is what [that thing you are including, or talking about, or desiring] looks like.” It doesn’t look like the picture in your head, or the photo shoot in the magazine. it doesn’t look like the stereotypes or the brochures or even the speech that one activist made once that was inspiring. It looks like this. It looks like me. I am it, I am here, and I am ready. Let’s do this.
It looks like you. It looks like me. It looks like us. Let’s do this.
So back in February, I made a post to Facebook that became a series of posts that became a private group, about being intense.
Being an intensive, I called it.
And as intensives are wont to do, I went hell-for-leather for a while, all-in, thinking, writing, totally absorbed. (It’s part of what we do.)
And then, emerging, I got into a car accident, and then I got sick….
and the shiny wore off.
And so my intensive-ness and my analysis of it moved to the back of the fridge.
But as I emerge from that fog, the question is this: how does one live into intensity?
How is an intensive sick? How is an intensive tired? How is an intensive when they’re taking codeine laced cough syrup?
How is an intensive slow?
And the answer seems to be this: either an intensive is INTENSELY slow (slow to the point of stopping, restful to the point of immobility) or an intensive is still going at 3000 or 4000 rpm behind the scenes even if the body can’t keep up.
I tried option one. I’m on to option two.
But option two puts a lot of pressure on the system, building up thoughts and possibilities, waiting. And waiting. It puts the focus forward, not in the now. And I’m not getting to “all better” fast enough to keep up with my brain. Brain recently decided, for instance, to go see if songwriting is fun. After 30 years of not writing songs. And then there’re the two books in the hopper. And coaching, of course. And a new circle of friends. And and and.
So the challenge now, is how to manage the backlog. It seems to involve measured progress, focusing on something and doing enough of that one thing that my intensity is satisfied, at least a little bit, that there is progress, at least a little bit.
But we shall see. There’ definitely something here, something with gears and ratios, something with not-stopping that is also not-rushing-forward, something that is useful for moving between the not-intensive and the intensive worlds. More to follow.
Ever since Charleston, I’ve been watching myself. I’m so far from perfect you can’t even see it from my breakfast table, but I’ve been asking the questions, over and over: where am I actively, outspokenly, effectively, daily anti-racist? Where am I not? How can I do better?
Certainly, I’ve done better on Facebook. I spend a lot of time there; I’m choosing to say more and stay silent less, and that’s deliberate. I’m engaging more often and rolling my eyes less often. I’ve got a network; I’m learning who of my friends is willing to join with me and who is not.
And my life has always been just a few steps to the side of the experiences shared by most people around me. I’m brown (mixed race) acculturated mostly white, trying to figure out what that even means in a conversation that’s got nothing but stark no man’s land for border dwellers.
The first time a saw a movie with all South Asian actors, I was in my early 20’s and it took me half an hour to turn off the TV when the videotape ended. I looked at my partner at the time and said, “Is that what it’s like to be white?” He didn’t really understand the question. And how could he? He had no way of knowing that when you don’t see yourself reflected in the media around you, ever, you either bend your identity to fit what you are seeing or you begin to believe you don’t exist. The complexities of multicultural and multiracial identity can wait; my point here is that I rarely saw any South Asians on TV or in the movies and when I did we were weird exotic outliers, more often than not. There were only a handful of us in town and we didn’t happen to cross paths, except one person with whom I was constantly getting confused. Even when I expanded the “us” in my head to include Middle Eastern families, there was still just not much context.
And context matters. Social media, TV, newspapers, movies, mattered then and they matter now. Video games, comics, novels: matter. Who we see matters. I recently signed on to beta read for author Mary Anne Mohanraj, who is working on a fantasy novel with a strong base in South Asian culture and I am delighted every time something feels familiar to that corner of myself that is so often neglected. This is my experience. But it has been giving me ideas about #blacklivesmatter. Because media matters, and not just the news.
I’ve been sick for about a week. So when I sat down to watch Netflix and all of my usual suspects had been exhausted, I flipped through and landed on a kind of a classic chick flick. Boy meets girl, stressful situation, they fall in love, external circumstances conspire against them, in the end they triumph. Not super complicated. But. About halfway–maybe further–through the movie, I noticed that damn near all the characters were black. Of course if you’d asked me in scene two, I would have told you that they were. But I was more interested in this cop who was being groomed for politics, the stage mom turned manager, the talented performer, so it took a while before the analysis kicked in. And I realized that there are choices I make. I can choose to seek out more media with black characters, with leading roles and supporting casts that are black. There are a striking number of stories that could be authentically told in nonwhite contexts that are not. And with Netflix at the ready, it’s hardly justifiable to only see movies I’m sure of. When I visited DC a couple of months ago, I was kindly lent a car; the owner had the radio tuned to the radio station of Howard University. I was delighted. And I didn’t touch that dial. We don’t have black radio here in Scarborough, Maine, at least not that I’ve found. But I bet it’s on the internet.
And when all the music I always listened to seemed to be associated with some painful past moment of my life, I turned to Songza and found it thick with R&B and hip-hop, which I didn’t think I liked, but I was wrong. Then there was the revelation when I discovered that I knew absolutely zero about funk, its history, its connection to American civil rights movements, or anything else. So I’m getting myself educated now. Better late than never.
When I was a teen there were black kids all around me–not as often in my classes, because racism is rampant in our schools–but on the bus, in the halls, in the cafeteria. Since I left that part of the country I’ve lived in very white places, most of the time. Aside from a two year stint in Chicago, everywhere else has been overwhelmingly white. My cultural exposure has been limited by my geography. Now I know that movies are not reality, but I also know I learned a LOT from books as a kid, and there’s truth in the cracks where the light gets through.
So I’m making a conscious choice to seek out media that represents the world I live in, not just the street where I hang my hat. It changes my brain. And that matters.
Holy shit Charleston.
I wrote a piece that isn’t ready for the public eye, and may never be. Because holy shit.
And now I’m writing this, because the debate has devolved in many quarters into the meta debate: what is this really about anyway? Is it race or guns or the history of the Confederacy?
I think the biggest part, the thing that needs the attention, is race. But whenever any thinking person starts to address it, we end up with a lot of other conversations and a lot of side conversations. These are at root conversations about values, which is exactly what they need to be…but they’re also conversations about something else, something we’re not talking about.
so I sat down to figure it out, and here it is.
I can’t write about one thing without writing about the others anymore.
How do I talk about race without talking about gender? How do I talk about privilege of any kind without talking about class?
It doesn’t work.
But when the story about Charleston broke, I tried. I tried because the alternative feels impossible, overwhelming, absurd.
It’s like untangling a huge knot, made of about ten different kinds of yarn. If you have to find all the ends and begin at all the places all at once, you’re never going to even get started. Which is where the US has been, as a country, since….oh, Columbus and Vespucci or so.
So instead you pick ONE kind of yarn. The purple one, say. You start following all the purple threads, and let everything else blur out. A little at a time, a little at a time…until you find what you think might be an end, the origin of the purple thread. And then you start following it forward again, up and down and under and over, drawing an increasingly long and unwieldy tail behind you, slowing freeing pieces of the other yarn but ignoring them, remaining single-minded, following, following, following until you arrive at the OTHER end, and then you start over with a different color, with what is essentially a brand-new knot, dramatically changed by the removal of the purple yarn, destabilized but still definitely tangled.
Works great with yarn.
Sucks with people.
Because the whole knot relies on the whole knot. And so the yarn, which is made of both people and their ideas, the yarn fights BACK. It grips and tangles and grows thorns. It shapeshifts and becomes a writhing mass of serpents and dragons, drawing blood at every turn. The purple yarn, especially, becomes razor wire with a brain. It doesn’t want to be removed; it doesn’t want to be reduced to insignificance by being taken out of the equation. The other yarns like it; they need it; they hold on and intertwine with it. When you drop that loose end for a second it bends back and begins weaving itself into the knot again, more tightly than ever.
And because human brains are like this, when we are part of the yarn we do this without even realizing it.
So we SAY we are all for disentangling. Meanwhile we are growing fangs and claws that we can’t see and using them in ways that we don’t understand.
This is change theory, this is systems theory, this is also not theory. It is the very real answer to the question, “Why haven’t we come farther in the years since Selma?”
Take the classic family systems scenario, which conveniently has absolutely nothing to do with race.
There’s a person who’s got a long and trying history of alcoholism. He has spent years avoiding sobriety and his family has spent years complaining about his drinking. it’s clear that his drinking has caused a whole bunch of problems. The complaints are well-founded.
Then one day he figures it out. Maybe it’s a visit from God, maybe it’s getting hauled in for DUI AGAIN, but whatever it is, he gets it, all the way into his bones. He goes home, pours out all the alcohol in the house, goes to three AA meetings in his first day and 30 in his first month, and he starts getting sober. Really, truly sober. A month, two months, six months….still sober. It’s working, whatever it is. He’s a changed man. The program starts impacting his attitudes, the way he moves through the world, his choices for social activities, his values. Suddenly, one day, he comes home and there’s a bottle of vodka in the middle of the dining table. He takes a deep breath, calls his sponsor, goes out for coffee, attends an extra AA meeting. He asks his wife if she would please put the bottle away and she lashes out, has a list of a hundred and twenty seven things he did wrong when he was drinking and says she won’t have her fun curtailed by his faults. Then she pours a drink right in front of him. He takes a deep breath, calls his sponsor, and disappears for 24 hours. He stays at a friend’s house, someone in the program. He’s determined not to drink and is hurt and angry that his wife would make it so hard for him.
What’s happening here? His wife complained bitterly when he was drinking. What is this?
This is human systems at work. The very short breakdown is that he changed. He is connected to his wife. When he changes, she has to change, too, because he is no longer playing his old role in her life. She subconsciously doesn’t want to change. So she starts acting out in ways that might draw him back into his old role, so she can go back to what she’s used to. Human brains and human systems don’t like change. When we’re interconnected, our change affects everyone around us. The system we’re in is going to resist that change. It’s adapted to who we were, not who we are trying to become.
This theory of human behavior has its origins as Family Systems Theory but in fact it could be called Any Humans Connected to Any Other Humans theory. It has been reconfigured for use in religious organizations, in business situations, and even in internal family systems, which is more or less the set of voices you carry around in your head that comment on everything you do (the movie Inside Out makes this kind of thing visible).
So with regard to social change, the cultural and political system, along with our family and friend networks AND our internal systems, are all adapted to our various biases and prejudices. We use them. When we try and change them, we change the system, and the system fights back.
So we can’t untangle everything at once. And when we try to untangle just one thing, we get stuck with yarn that bites. Now what?
The answer is simple but not easy. The answer is fear. Fear of a lot of things, but it almost doesn’t matter.
Fear is what makes the yarn come to life and twist and twine and grow spikes. Fear is what makes the wife bring home the vodka. Fear is what drives stasis. It might be uncomfortable to be the way we were, but we know what to expect. As long as the discomfort is tolerable, we let fear run the show.
A year that starts with Ferguson and ends with Charleston is not tolerable, and that’s why things are starting to change.
When we address the need for change in a way that induces more fear than necessary, we make the pushback worse.
This goes to a bit of neurobiology that, vastly summarized, works like this: when you’re scared your brain shuts down all the higher-order thinking: creativity, complex reasoning, gray areas, sense of humor, gone. Those parts of your brain get taken offline so you can’t get distracted from the central work of survival. You become a very, very unsophisticated survival machine. This happens to everyone. Fear shuts down the useful parts of the brain. You are left with breathing, running, fighting, and staying very, very still. That’s fight-flight-freeze.
So if you’re arguing with someone and they get scared, the conversation is effectively over. And the more often this reaction gets triggered by this conversation, the easier it is for the trigger to get tripped again. The brain learns. And if you’re arguing with someone and YOU get scared, the same thing happens. No one is immune.
So we changemakers are walking this fine line between tolerating discomfort and putting the very people we want to have think creatively into an anti-creativity panic that’s biological and unavoidable.
And that’s where building relationships comes in. If you know a person and you have a good relationship, the panic doesn’t kick in as readily. When the panic doesn’t kick in, conversation, change, and compromise are possible.
[A word about where you come from: if you’re in one or more marginalized groups, you are accustomed to much higher levels of discomfort than the unmarginalized people around you. You operate better under higher levels of dissonance and change, and you have learned to moderate your responses to specific kinds of stress, including prejudice. You shouldn’t have to, but that’s the world we live in. You may even have come to associate moderate levels of dissonance with healthy stretching-of-brain and growth. When your standards are substantially different from the people you’re interacting with, the low threshold has to take precedence, because one panicked person means the whole conversation ends. And just because you can tolerate high levels of stress on one topic doesn’t mean you are necessarily similarly equipped on other topics. You may be used to talking about poverty but totally unprepared to talk about race, for example. Also, your level of discomfort and therefore your willingness to tolerate it is almost certainly different from that of the people around you.]
When you can relax, the yarn relaxes. The knot loosens. Everything gets easier. (Not usually EASY, just easier.)
That’s the third path. Loosen the whole knot, gradually, unweave ends when they show up, and keep tugging gently, gently, gently.
They are all connected to each other, all held in place by fear of change.
Of course race and class and gun control and the history of the Confederacy and mental health are all connected. Of course they are.
And of course, we will feel much better when we’ve untangled the whole messy thing. But that’s going to take time. Meanwhile, see what you can do about fear. Your fear. Find it, ferret it out, and unwind it. That’s where this whole thing starts.