Healthy Dis-Ease

A few weeks ago, I attended the Nonviolent Leadership for Social Justice Intensive, a gathering that brings together people studying Nonviolent Communication (NVC, also called Compassionate Communication) and people involved in social justice work. The focus of the intensive was “NVC and Race, Ethnicity, and Class in North America.” Because NVC and social justice worlds don’t always meet, the goal was to bring together people with varying levels of experience in these areas to be real with each other, to learn from each other, and to cultivate interconnection, a sense of shared reality, groundedness.

Very often NVC spaces are majority-white. Recognizing that, the organizers of the intensive made a commitment this year to aim for a ratio of 60% people of color (POC) and 40% white people. They explained this on the website:

In the context of a majority white country, where POC centered spaces for learning, healing and growth can be scarce and/or siloed away from white-identified people, we want to see if we can create a space that supports the implicit sense of shared reality for POC, while at the same time including white-identified people… We anticipate that this ratio may facilitate implicit support for POC participants, provide new experiences and perspectives for our white-identified participants, and bring learning to a deeper level for the Intensive as a whole.

This meant I was on a waiting list until just 2 weeks before the intensive began. Because of this commitment, I was even more eager to go to the intensive and would have affirmed this demographic goal, even if it had meant my not attending. As it turns out, attendees were of Asian descent, Black, indigenous, Latinx, and white. Within each group, there was diversity of age, origin, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, knowledge, and experience.

I had attended two intensives before this and thought the other two were intense. This one was even more so. With the dual focus on NVC and social justice, particularly racial justice, we had several sessions with the whole group so that we might grow our collective understanding of NVC, systemic violence, and nonviolence. Each one of these is a massive topic to dig into; the diversity within our group added to the complexity and the depth of the conversation, as well as the potential for conflict.

On the second full day of the intensive, a major conflict erupted. It is not mine to tell the specifics of the conflict. Broad themes included cultural appropriation and anti-Blackness. In dominant culture when these things come up, the pain of the people most affected is often swept under the rug, ignored, denied, or dismissed. We were in a place designed to face the pains, to bring them into the light, to try to hold each other in care, to try to create more understanding, and in doing so, even, maybe, some healing. A little bit of healing that we might carry out with us beyond our days together, that we might carry into the world, recognizing that our healing is part of the world’s healing, because we are part of the world.

As a white person ardently desiring to be seen as one of the “good white people” (a quality in myself I’m not proud of), I was at a loss, not knowing if or when to speak up. There were discussions I witnessed that I didn’t even know if I should be in the room for, but I didn’t want to leave both because I didn’t want to cause any disruption and the conversations were not ones I’m often privy to. My way of staying in the room was drawing, processing it all at a level without words.

Being in those spaces felt sacred, but also uncomfortable; sometimes I felt like I was seeing something that really wasn’t meant for me. It’s because I want to honor that time with such care that I don’t think it’s for me to share the particulars.

For much of the week I was wildly uncomfortable, wanting to be an active participant, but not knowing quite what that meant, particularly in large group spaces. I didn’t want to get things “wrong” and be called on it and I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I wanted to have a voice, but I was one of the people least directly affected by systemic racism. What business did I have voicing the particular pain that racism causes me?

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At one point in a white caucus gathering, I admitted my dis-ease: “I don’t have a f—ing clue.” It wasn’t a surprise to anyone. It wasn’t a unique sentiment. I’ve done some work on racism and white privilege, looking at it from personal and structural levels. I’ve even led others through explorations of these topics. But I still have so much to learn. There is so much I don’t see in large part because, systemically speaking, I’m not meant to.

I am so grateful for the dis-ease I was feeling. I don’t enjoy discomfort, but I’m grateful for times of grappling, learning, struggling, sometimes with POC, often with other white people. I believe that for white people, putting ourselves in healthy dis-ease is critical, if we care about our interconnection with our brothers and sisters of color.   

I believe being in this dis-ease, personally and collectively, will ultimately make us healthier, especially when we enter the space with intentionality and care.  I believe that our lives, our children’s lives, their children’s lives, depend on our choosing to have some healthy dis-ease.  

And let me be clear: Some of us have a choice and some of us don’t. I chose to be in the discomfort. As a white person, I had the choice. I could have stayed in my white middle-class American bubble of relative comfort, fairly confident that people would treat me well by virtue of my appearance, people would err on the side of positive assumptions rather than negative ones. This ease is the default setting in my life. Most of the time I have a choice to be in ease or dis-ease.

That’s not true for everyone. The ease and choice of comfort is not the reality for many of the people I spent the week with. For POC, the decision to speak or not to speak could affect their jobs, physical well-being, life. Ease is not the default setting. Even saying “the right things” doesn’t necessarily offer protections. While I am not completely safe either, my whiteness provides a sort of “shield” of protection. 

I’ve had a murky awareness of this for a while. The murky started to become less so about 7 years ago. I was in Istanbul, Turkey as part of a Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation; our delegation leader had been denied entry into Turkey, so our group had to figure out how to get to one of the airports so we could fly to eastern Turkey and meet up with our other delegation leaders. I had been in Istanbul for a few days and had been there before, so I had some familiarity of the area; I was also very willing to ask people for help. They’d always been friendly to me. As our group was discussing our plan, some delegates expressed concern about us getting lost.

I confidently told them, “People here are so friendly, they’ve always helped me and sometimes gone out of their way to help.”

A black member of the delegation quietly offered, “That’s not everyone’s experience here.”

“What?”

“That’s not everyone’s experience. I am not received very warmly by people here.” This was one of many awakenings I’ve had on racism and privilege. I still don’t have a f—ing clue. I don’t know what I don’t know.


I am back in my bubble now, trying to step out of it, trying to notice the things I’m not meant to notice. Trying to speak up when I see them.

Last week I noticed and I spoke as much as I was able to in the moment. I was with a newly arrived Honduran father and daughter at an event where free immunizations were being given. Toward the end of the event, a Black woman and two or three white people approached me. The Black woman spoke, “Do you speak Spanish? These folks would like some translation.”

I looked at the white people. They were holding some boxes with the logo of a local charity. “We’d like to ask those mothers if we could put their kids in these boxes and take some pictures. We think it’d be really cute, so people could see who their donations were benefiting.”

I could feel the lump in my throat form, my back tighten. I couldn’t clearly name my unease, but I knew it was there. I paused and replied, “I’m feeling some discomfort about that. I’m not sure what it is, but I don’t feel good about it.”

“So we should get someone else to translate?” one of the white people asked.

Feebly I replied, “I guess so.”

I wish I had said, “No, please don’t put the brown children in boxes and take pictures of them for social media.” But I didn’t.

The white people with boxes left, I guess to find another translator. The Black woman stayed. She thanked me for voicing my discomfort. I reiterated, “It just didn’t feel right. It felt like…”

“Exploitation?” she offered.

“Yes! And a bit white savior-y.” She nodded.

Even after that clarity, I didn’t go and address it with them. I have no idea if they took any pictures. I did check the organization’s social media feeds and didn’t see any of the pictures they were hoping to take, so I hope they never actually took them. I was prepared to ask the organization to take them down if there were pictures posted.


 And so I continue to learn, sometimes partially responding the way I hope to, sometimes only getting clarity after the fact, sometimes regretting not having acted. Practice makes better, never perfect.

I wanted to wrap this reflection up neatly with a final conclusion.

There is no conclusion.

The work continues.

(Not) Political

Someone asked me recently if I am worried about being “political” in my blog. She noted that the last post I wrote might be seen as such. She said that “being political” might turn away some potential clients (and attract others).

My goal in writing is neither to be political nor not be political. My goal in writing is neither to attract nor deter clients.

My writing goal is to be authentic. My goal is to live in the most integrated way I can, where my work and my life reflect my values. I hope that my writing reflects who I am, my particular experience of broken wholeness responding to the broken wholeness of other people and our world.

That means that I write about the people and things I value, the situations in my personal life, community, city, state, country, our world that fill me with joy and hope…or sadness and despair.

I’d imagine some people will interpret some of my words as “political” and write me off. Others may interpret some of my words as “too soft” on the “bad people," “not political enough,” and write me off.

I’m ok with that.

I can’t control what others think of me so not accepting that would only drain away energy I could be using for more life-giving options.

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My work- teaching Compassionate Communication, practicing Reiki, creating heart portraits and other art- is healing work; it is a life-giving option, for myself as well as those I work with. I share my work with anyone, whether our views align or not, because I believe that healing is healing, that we all need it in some form or another, and that it’s not up to me to decide who “deserves” healing and who doesn’t.

I want all people to be well. I don’t mean well in a superficial way. I mean well at a soul level. Well physically. Well mentally. Well emotionally. Well spiritually.

This includes both harm-makers and harm-takers, because let’s be honest, who of us isn’t both simultaneously, whether intentionally or not?

Because I want all people to be well, I will do my best to work with anyone who ends up in front of me asking for my care.

Healing is not political work. Not partisan, anyway, and…

Healing is political work.

My writing is not political. Not partisan, anyway, and…

My writing is political.

How I live my life is…well, I definitely get involved in politics, and…

My politics is not the totality of who I am.

Both/and.

So be it.

What We Pay Attention To, an unfinished story

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A few days ago 72 Catholics, as a part of the Catholic Action for Immigrant Children Campaign. were arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. I am proud to call some of them friends. Two days before their action, over a thousand progressive Jewish activists and allies blocked the entrances of the ICE headquarters in D.C.; dozens of them were also arrested. If I knew them, I’d be proud to call them friends, too. Both of these actions are parts of larger campaigns to support our immigrant brothers and sisters.

Earlier in the week in Greenville, S.C, the same place where people attending a Trump rally chanted “Send her back,” a restaurant owner pledged to give 100% of the restaurant’s sales to the American Immigration Council.

Responding to that chant which was directed at her, Rep. Ilhan Omar quoted Maya Angelou:

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I rise.

Yesterday at the Big Four Bridge, my favorite place in my city of Louisville, KY, hundreds gathered in 90+ degree heat to “reclaim the space” after racist graffiti was sprayed on the bridge a few days before. They were responding to a Tweet by local poet, truth teller, and leader Hannah Drake.  

Weekly in cities and villages throughout Palestine, Palestinians, sometimes with Israelis and internationals, gather to speak out against the Israeli military occupation, speak to reclaim their space, reclaim, exclaim their dignity and right to be.

In Puerto Rico, in Hong Kong, in other places around the world, people are remembering their power and using it to speak out, to call for, to create change. Are we paying attention?

Empowering, creating change happens in public protests. It happens in quieter ways, too. It can happen as parents and grandparents listen and talk to their children and grandchildren about the world, relationships, ways we do and can relate to each other. It can happen as people choose to honor each other in the fullness and complexity of their divine humanness, not for what they produce, but simply because they are.

I’ve been reading adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy. Throughout the book, she offers this reminder: What we pay attention to grows.*

Knowing the stories above, the sense of courage and inspiration grows. I was going to say my sense. And then I remembered, I am a part of Creation, of All-That-Is. And if I am part of Creation and my sense of courage and inspiration grows, then the sense of courage and inspiration grows.

This evening on Facebook, a friend posed the question: If you could build anything, what would it be? There were many beautiful answers to this question from a large music school to cheap inexhaustible energy sources to a better world to a plan to fix our mental health care system to more affordable housing and on and on. Most of the answers fill me with hope and engage my imagination. We can only build these things if we can dream them first.

What we pay attention to grows.

I love this idea.

I believe it.

I don’t always know how to practice it well.

How do I or we bring to light devastating realities in a way that grows the healing and not the hurt?

Truth-telling is important. Empowering. And yet so often, in seeking to lift up the dignity-humanity-divinity of a person or group facing dehumanizing forces, we truth tell in a way that demonizes and dehumanizes the perpetrators of harm, thus perpetuating harm, though directed differently.

I get it. I’ve done it many times and since that way of thinking and speaking is all around me, I imagine I’ll do it again, even as I try to break the habit of shaming and blaming, a practice I turn both outward and inward.

My nonviolence and nonviolent communication training compels me then to ask this question:

How do I or we address these issues, these patterns of systemic harm in a way that honors the humanity of both perpetrator and victim, actor and receiver of harm?

Those actively doing harm, while perhaps not suffering in the way they are hurting others, are also suffering. They are not well, even if they are well-resourced.

Because when we are well, well at that deepest place within us,

well so that our divine-stardust-interconnected nature shines,

we don’t hurt other people. Not intentionally.

Or if we do,

in humility,

from that place of knowing that we can be both divine and imperfect all at once,

we find ways to try to make amends, to bring healing to the places of fracture.

 

When I lead Nonviolent Communication training, I often quote Rumi:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase 
each other
doesn’t make any sense.

Where even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense, I know that I cannot be fully healed until we all are fully healed. Until we’re all in that field.

The healing field.

The healed field.

If I wish harm to someone who’s hurt me or my friends or family or someone I don’t even know, I also suffer. I’m not in the healed field. Because that someone is a part of the Interconnected. And I am part of the Interconnected.

What we pay attention to grows. I do not want to pay attention to and grow the harm in the Interconnected.

I want to lie down in that field.

I want to pay attention to the potential for healing, to the ways of imagination that know and acknowledge the harm, that reveal it, but don’t get stuck in it.  

Yesterday at a retreat for a board I’m on, someone reminded us several times that we can’t do everything, but we can do something.

When we do something, we get unstuck.

Tonight my something is to write, first for myself, to process input in an attempt to create comprehensible output.

Then I share this with you, because maybe you didn’t know the stories I started with, or maybe you don’t know the work of adrienne maree brown, or maybe you’d forgotten that even though you can’t do everything, you can do something.

You can do something that grows your vision of what you want the world to look like. Even one small thing makes a difference.

And then maybe when you remember you can do something, that one small thing, you’ll do it.

And maybe someone else will notice.

And maybe they’ll remember their power, too, and they’ll do something.

And maybe someone else will notice and do something

and someone else and do

and someone

and

 

 

*She also writes a zillion other beautiful, simple, challenging things. If you haven’t read her work, check it out!