A long, long time ago, I was teaching a class called “Pre-Colonial American History.” I was sharing with the class details of the massive genocide that was perpetrated by the people who came to conquer and tame the new world. I was, with some passion, connecting it to the conditions that those few survivors lived under today, on our nations' reservations.
A very bold and brash student, Jill, raised her hand and said, “It seems you care so much about it, why aren’t you doing anything about it?” WHAT???? I didn’t tell her what went through my head at that moment (which was something close to “you little brat, I AM doing something about it, I’m telling YOU to care about it and do something about it, I’ve done my job just telling you about it, haven’t I?”). It stung. It challenged me. But, I knew she was right. Talking about it wasn’t enough. I needed to do something about it.
So, I did. Several months later, she, along with a couple dozen other students and I ended up on the Dine (what we non-Dine call the Navajo) reservation, doing something. We did a type of “Head Start” program for the children there who would be going to school in the fall. Going to a school being taught by English speaking teachers, while they, the children, had seldom been exposed to English speakers at all. And we painted outhouses. And……It was a wonderful experience. The lesson Jill taught me was that it isn’t enough to just “feel” and “talk” and “lament” things, such energy needed to be attached to actions or it is pretty much worthless hot air.
It was about a year ago that I was wondering what I might be able to do to make a difference. What could I do to protect those who might need protecting now with our country’s recent shocking regime change. If I had done and said just some of the things that had been said and done by our new leader, I would have, quite justifiably, been sent to the dog-house. The person who had said and done those things now occupied the White House along with his ardent, cheering him on, believers. 60 million of them.
Some were and are my friends. I was told that I was too worried, that things would be just fine, everything would settle in, everything and everyone would be ok. From where I sit now, after a year of watching how things have played out, I was appropriately alarmed.
So, as Jill would say, what have you actually DONE?
1). I’ve spent a lot of time listening to those (members of the 60-million strong army) who believe that things have never been better. Though many are reluctant to talk because they themselves, have been ridiculed, mocked, chastised and attacked for their perspective, I want to understand them. (As an aside, I do believe this mocking is totally inappropriate and not helpful and a huge part of the problem based on what I know about human beings). This listening is not easy. If you want to get an idea of how difficult it is, try listening to the news from a network that supports the opposing view of the network that you typically watch. It’s excruciating.
I was recently conducting a workshop focused on how to listen to people who think differently than we might, and a lady asked, “Why do we have to do all this hard work to try to listen to someone else?” I responded, “We don’t have to, unless we want anything to change and we each have to decide if it is worth our effort. And if it isn’t us, who will it be?”
Why try to listen? Because everyone’s belief system has huge gaping holes in it. If someone listens well enough to us, and if we keep talking long enough we will fall right into those holes ourselves. No one will need to confront or criticize us. We will be confronted by the inconsistencies in our own belief systems. When that happens, we change. On the other hand, if we are never listened to, and our belief system is attacked, we will defend ourselves with a counter attack. We are spared from having to think through all the inconsistencies of our “position”. When we are confronted by someone or something from the outside, research has shown that only makes us more rigid in our positions, and significantly less likely to change. That’s true of even well meaning “constructive criticism”. If I use these kinds of strategies with those who think differently, I am making the situation worse.
2). I have become an even more diligent student of understanding how others can look at the same picture I see, admit that they see the same thing, and while what I see freaks me out, they quite jocularly, (“snowflake”) don’t perceive any threat, problem or danger whatsoever, reminding me that things have never been better.
I’ve become a more diligent student of understanding how others can look at the same picture I do and see nothing at all. I have listened as they shared with me how what is so troubling and scary to me, is ok with them. (Just a note to say that not one of them have asked me anything about what I see, which goes to show, as I say to others who I am teaching listening skills, just because you listen to them, doesn’t mean that they will return the favor, so you must be willing to listen with the sole intent of understanding, without expecting to be heard).
Through the research I have read, I’ve learned that a great deal of what we see or don’t see, is biological, genetic, in nature, not personal. What we see, and consequently what we believe and do or don’t do, is not a conscious choice. (This for some, I’ve found, is hard to swallow) The same as we don’t “choose” the shape of our nose or chin or ears (though we can have plastic surgery to change what nature gave us, as we can also change how our brain is wired). For example, it seems that some of us are born (genetics) with a greater inclination towards being compassionate to other beings than others. The way that plays out is that when some of us see inequality the pain centers in our brains are triggered, and we HAVE to do something to fix what we see, which on the outside looks altruistic, but actually it is an attempt to relieve the pain we feel; while others’ brains register no pain at all when they witness the exact same moment or scene, so they aren’t moved to do anything. I’ve also learned that some of us have “Liberal” genetic brain wiring (which allows us to “see” different perspectives on the same issue) and others of us have genetic wiring that is “Conservative” in nature (which means it is difficult for us to see anything other than what we first “see”) and that both can be somewhat manipulated by learning about our natural inclinations and manipulated by outside information. All this has helped me de-personalize my experience of others (“It’s not them, it is how their brain works”) and develop a degree of compassion for and develop an entire set of new strategies to engage those who see the world differently than I do. It hasn’t been easy, but it has been enlightening and good practice.
3). I’ve approached and befriended a number of those people who have been especially targeted by our current PIC (which for a card-carrying introvert - 12 on a 1 to 10 scale - is a significant act of courage). I have listened (listened, not talked, not dialoged, but listened). Without exception, each of them has told me that their situation is not that much different now, except that it seems more ok and more likely for the racist, sexist, and prejudicial behaviors that they have always been subject to will happen, without apparent repercussion. I continue to be humbled by their stories. Feeling regret that I didn’t know before. I meet with them, listen to them, and have provided financial support for their causes and needs.
4). Over the last year, I have had the opportunity to travel to many different countries meeting students and citizens from all over the world. Invariably I am asked in some form, “What is going on in America?” Their image of who they thought we were and what we stood for has been shattered. It wasn’t as if they didn’t know that some of the things that they are experiencing weren’t a part of the American psyche, it is that now such words, thinking and behaviors seem to them to have become “mainstream”, delivered by our leadership cohort rather than those of the minority underbelly, and their concern that what they are witnessing represents how the majority of Americans actually think, feel, and would behave if they could get away with it. I have listened as they have registered their disbelief, dismay, and fear over what they are witnessing from afar. As a group of us were sitting at dinner and talking about all this, a gentleman, the owner of the restaurant, approached us. I thought he was going to ask us to quit talking about such things at his restaurant. What he said instead was, “Thank you for being willing to listen to us and talk about these things. It give me hope that what I am seeing, and hearing isn’t the only truth.” I’ve provided some reassurance that many of the things, primarily the bullying, mocking, anti-social and ill-mannered behaviors that they see from our leadership do not represent the sentiments of most of us. So, I have been an ambassador without credentials, as they say.
5). I’ve had the pleasure of “having the backs” of some women who have had the courage to speak up about what it has cost them to be a woman in America. I’m happy to see that it has turned into a major movement. I have listened, believed, been present for, strategized with, and emotionally and financially supported their efforts. This pleases me because now, perhaps, the world my wife, daughter granddaughters, and female friends live in will be a little bit safer. And, ultimately, the safer they are, the safer I am, and the rest of us are. I was asked and am in the process of co-authoring a book proposal examining the meaning and costs of the artificial designations of feminine and masculine.
6). I’ve spent a considerable amount of time looking inside of myself, owning and embracing the very feelings, thoughts and behaviors that I find so appalling. To look at the perpetrator of the most troubling behaviors I witness inside of me. I’ve found that that place is not empty. I continue to work on modeling appropriate behaviors. In that way trying to be the change that I’d like to see. As a part of my work I’ve initiated gatherings of men and women who are interested in and willing to look at the shadow part of our own selves as we openly discuss our experience of being men and women in our world, the implications and challenges, the costs and benefits.
7). I’ve continued to read and study about human behaviors (both honorable and horrific) and the subconscious influence on these behaviors from our economic and social systems. I’m especially taken by the sub-conscious de-humanizing effect on us all.
8). I’ve dipped my toe into the world of politics by attending meetings and gatherings learning the inside story about how the sausage making that we call our legislative system, works.
9). I’ve been more honest and risky in what information I send out into my small world in personal conversations and via this blog. I responded more honestly when someone says to me “So, how are you doing?” I have initiated and participated in many more conversations on typically taboo subjects, like politics.
10). Finally, I’ve spent a great deal of my professional time providing experiences for people to learn how to listen to others and themselves in more thorough and compassionate ways.
So, this is a list of things that I would be able to tell my grandchildren if they were to ever ask, “What did you do when all this was going on?” I think they have a right to ask. I don’t believe I’ve done all that much, but I have done what I have been led to do. I hope to be able to continue “doing” things. To keep myself open to opportunities as they present themselves
You’ll notice the “listening” word a lot. I’m of the opinion that if there was more of that going on there would be a lot less of what we see, going on.
If you are one of those who sees/has seen things to be concerned about, I wonder what would be on your list. Warning, I may steal some of your ideas. Feel free to take mine.
As Gandhi is given credit for saying, “Whatever you do to try to make the world a better place will be meaningless; but you have to do it anyway.”