Why is it so hard to be real? On authenticity and love.

authenticity

I wrote a very personal post recently for The Helpers’ Circle about how much I struggle with The Fear of Letting People Down (and how I’ve learned to talk myself out of it). Here’s a quote from that post…

“My Fear of Letting People Down started at a young age. I became very practiced at being The Good Girl, the one who didn’t show her anger, who took responsibility for her work and did it well, who didn’t rock the boat and who could be depended on at all costs. I needed people to be happy with me – to notice my good work and to not get angry. When people were pleased with me and nobody was angry, my world felt safe.”

After writing it, I was thinking about how many things get in the way of our quest for authenticity – fear, shame, duty, etc.. In almost every conversation I have, whether in coaching sessions or workshops, I hear a deep longing for greater authenticity, and almost always a deep sadness that the path to authenticity seems so treacherous and never-ending. And the fear always keeps us company… the fear of letting people down, the fear of embarrassing ourselves, the fear of rejection, the fear of judgement, the fear of falling flat on our faces, and the fear of being alone.

We want to be real. We want to be true to ourselves. We want to be bold in being who we truly are. And yet… so much gets in the way that sometimes it seems impossible. There are bills to pay, people to please, rules to follow, wounds to protect, and shame to hide.

Why is that the case? Why have we found ourselves in a culture that is so hell-bent on making people live inauthentic lives?

I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer to that question. It’s probably a nature+nurture thing. At least some of it can be connected to the materialistic lifestyles we’ve adopted – a function of living in a production-oriented, economy-driven world. Shiny things are the most desirable, and so we make ourselves more shiny.

But there’s also something else, and it’s about love.

Not long after I wrote the piece for The Helpers’ Circle, I interviewed my friend Lianne Raymond (who knows a great deal about psychology and child development) for one of the monthly interviews I’m sharing in the circle and Lianne said something quite profound that cracked open something new for me in this regard.

“Given a choice between authenticity and love, a child will always choose love.”

Wow. She’s right! That’s where it all begins! From the very first time we open our eyes and seek out our mothers’ smiles, our primary quest is for love. Love is the foundation – the ground we learn to walk on. From the moment we slipped out of the womb (and before), we needed it nearly as much as we needed the air we breathed. We did everything we could to get that love, even if it meant gradually giving up pieces of ourselves to please the person whose love we sought.

A world in which we were loved is a world in which we are safe.

Even good parents and guardians can unintentionally attach behaviour to love. I remember my own mother (who did so many things right) used to say things like “if you love me, you’ll wash the dishes”. And though I haven’t used those same words, I know there are moments I unintentionally make it clear to my daughters that it’s easier to love them when I see certain behaviour. We are all flawed in this effort to love each other.

Whether it was to please our parents, our teachers, or our peers, we quickly learned, as children, what behaviour brought us the most love and what behaviour resulted in that love being withheld. We adapted, we conformed, and we sacrificed. Some of us never really got the love we were seeking, and so the world became a very unsafe place. We didn’t know how to behave because nothing we did brought us the love we so badly needed.

Somewhere along the way, we forgot what it meant to be real. We only knew what pleased or displeased the people whose affections we craved. And some of us, raised in volatile or unstable environments, knew how to run for cover or to morph ourselves into whatever shapes would best protect us.

Then one day we grew up and didn’t recognize ourselves anymore. We saw only strangers looking back in the mirror at us. We realized that, instead of being authentic, we had become composites of all of the behaviours that other people expected of us.

To reveal the real work of art, hidden under the collage of other people’s expectations, takes a lot of courageous effort. Every layer we peel away reveals a tenderness, a shame, a wound. Every step we take to recovering our authenticity puts us at risk. We may be shamed for it, we may be rejected, we may not be loved. The little child in us shrieks “YOU CAN’T DO THAT! You’re breaking the rules! You need to be loved! You need to be safe!”

But “safe” begins to feel like “stuck” and we long for more. We long for truth. We long for freedom. We long for ourselves.

Gradually, those of us who finally decide that authenticity is the only way we can truly live, realize that we have no choice but to break the rules. We have no choice but to risk being unloved. We have no choice but to give up the safety we worked so hard to find.

After much agony, fear, and faltering, those of us who find the courage come back to ourselves. Many of us lose people along the way – we lose those people who only know how to love us when we behave in a certain way. But we find other people. We find people who are on similar paths to authenticity and we realize that we can cobble together new families and new communities that hold space for us no matter how we behave.

Finally, we find a new kind of safety – one that is rooted in real love, not conditional love – and in that place of safety, we unfurl into whoever we are meant to be.

It may never be perfect (even now I sometimes find myself hiding parts of myself from those whose love I value most because I don’t want them to reject me), but it feels a little closer to being Real.

* * * * * *

p.s. To see the interview with Lianne or to read the post I mentioned, about The Fear of Letting People Down, you’ll have to become part of The Helpers’ Circle.

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How our sameness leaves us blind: a reflection on diversity and inclusion

diversity

In one of my favourite childhood photos, I’m sitting on the couch with a row of dolls lined up on my lap. Unfortunately, that photo was lost when my mom moved away from the farm after dad died, so it exists only in my memory now. The way my memory serves me, though, each of those dolls has a different skin colour, hair colour, and/or cultural attire. Only one of those dolls has blonde hair and blue eyes like me.

That’s the way I like to think of myself – from a young age choosing to surround myself with difference, with diversity. It’s not always true (in much of my life I have been surrounded by too much sameness), but it’s my ideal image of myself.

I thought of that photo recently when a viral video depicted two young white girls reacting in disappointment and disgust when they received black dolls as Christmas gifts. What’s most disturbing about that video is the way the adults giggle about and invite their reaction and the very fact that some adult thought it was funny enough to share online. Clearly their behaviour is a learned behaviour. Raised in another environment, those girls would likely have been delighted by the gift.

I have been disturbed lately by sameness and the way those girls’ actions too closely reflect our own. I see it in my own life and I see it in the world around me. We gravitate toward what is comfortable and safe, what looks and sounds like us, and so we end up in places, in conversations, and in friendships where there is a clear insider and a clear outsider. In doing so, we marginalize the people who don’t fit in. Without even knowing it, we toss aside the black dolls just as those young girls did.

Most of us are good people, so we don’t do it intentionally, but good people make mistakes when we don’t pay attention. Good people make mistakes when we see the world only through our own lenses.

Marginalized people get hurt by a lot of good people who “didn’t mean to hurt anyone”. 

Let me be perfectly clear that I include myself in this critique. I like to be comfortable as much as the next person, and so I too often find myself in places and in relationships where the people in the room largely fall into the same racial, gender, and socio-economic categories as I do.

But we miss out on SO MUCH when we don’t listen to the voices of people who are different from us. We miss out on SO MUCH when we don’t challenge our own comfort levels and dare to stretch ourselves beyond what feels safe. We miss out on SO MUCH when we toss aside the beautiful black dolls.

When everyone in the room looks the same, someone’s left outside. Sometimes that’s okay (when we’re at a family gathering, or when we’ve come together for healing or empowerment, for example), but often it’s not.

Over the festive season, I participated in two spiritual gatherings. The first one (which I’ve written about before) was a small gathering in a hospital sanctuary, where people of diverse faiths each lit a candle and talked about what light means in their spiritual tradition. At that one, the room was full of diversity of every kind. Not only were there at least nine faith groups represented in those who lit candles (most of whom were people of colour from various parts of the world), but there were hospital patients in wheelchairs and people of all walks of life, with varying degrees of health, socio-economic status, and physical ability.

I left that gathering feeling energized and connected to God/dess.

The other gathering I attended was on Christmas Eve, in Florida where my family was vacationing. This was a traditional Christian service that was fairly similar to what I grew up with. Though the setting was very different (this was a large posh church with theatre-style seating, while I grew up in a tiny and poor country church with old wooden pews), the language was largely the same. There was some comfort in that sameness – I knew the Christmas carols and had heard the Christmas story hundreds of times. It was a perfectly lovely service, with great singing and good story-telling on the pastor’s part. One story he shared was quite moving – about how a large endowment to the church had been split up among church-goers who were told to go out and do some act of kindness in the community.

Unlike the gathering in the hospital sanctuary, there was very little diversity in the room. In a room filled with more than a thousand people, I saw only three people of colour and could see evidence of very little socio-economic diversity. Among the visible leadership, there was even less diversity. The only people who spoke or served communion were older white men. Either you received God’s teachings and God’s body and blood from an older white man, or you didn’t receive it at all.

I left that gathering feeling weary and disconnected from God/dess.

I have no doubt that the church-goers and their leaders are good people doing good work in their community. They don’t mean to exclude anyone, and there’s a good chance they have well-meaning conversations about how to increase their diversity and how to reach out to people who are different from them. I know many good people like them, and in many ways, I am one of them – good people trying to do good things.

But good people hurt other people by living their good, comfortable lives and ignoring their own privilege and narrow views of the world. 

And this is not a domain that’s exclusive to a conservative Christian church by any means. It happens in all kinds of settings.

Recently I was looking at an online advertisement for a women’s leadership summit – the kind of event I’d normally be drawn to, where leadership is seen through a feminine lens and there’s a comfort level with talk of the feminine divine and women’s power. But there was something about it that left me feeling sad, and I realized it was because of the sameness of the images on the speakers’ list. All of them were white women between the ages of 30 and 50 who looked like they’d stepped out of the pages of a yoga magazine.

Just what the patriarchy has for so long done to them, the organizers of this online summer were, (inadvertently of course) doing to others – marginalizing the voices of those who don’t fit. I’m sure these women would have all been horrified by the video of the young white girls tossing aside the black dolls, but in a way, the result was the same.

Sameness. Comfort. Marginalization. Barriers. Disconnection.

What do we do about it? That’s a big conversation and it needs the voices of many people who see the world differently from me.

I can only offer my own perspective from where I stand.

We start by noticing. We start by paying attention – looking around the room to see who’s sitting with us, checking our social media feed to see who we’re conversing with, noticing the books we read and the voices we listen to, paying attention to who has a voice at our gatherings. Because if we’re not listening to the stories of people who are different, if we’re not sitting and having conversations with them, we’ll always be stuck in this same place.

I loved Gloria Steinem’s recent book, My Life on the Road, largely because she shares so many stories about how she was influenced and changed by the people she met on the road. Much of her wisdom came not from people who look like her, but from black people, indigenous people, bikers, and farmers. She is the woman she is today because all of these people’s stories have been woven into her own.

I’m here to challenge us all to live more like that. Let’s be the kind of people who listen to stories and wisdom of people who look, think, and live differently from us. Let’s read books from other parts of the world and written by people of other races and classes. Let’s have more conversations with people who don’t share our political views or our socio-economic status.

I’ve created a list of books written by people who’ve lead very different lives from mine that I want to read and I’m working my way through them. Some I’ve read recently and recommend are Wab Kinew’s The Reason You Walk, Rosanna Deerchild’s Calling Down the Sky, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. I encourage you to build your own list.

I’ve also signed up for a course called “How to Embrace Diversity to Improve your Business” being offered by Desiree Adaway and Ericka Hines. Quite frankly, there is still too much sameness in the kind of clientele I attract and I want to see what I can do to change that. I know that Desiree and Ericka will challenge me and hold me accountable, and though it may be uncomfortable sometimes, I’ll do my best to stretch myself.

What else can we do to shift the status quo? Good people, I look forward to hearing from you.

Moving beyond “us and them”

IMG_3096

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of finding your tribe – people who love you just the way you are and who cheer you on as you do courageous things.

Tribe-building is important and valuable, but it only takes you part way down the path to an openhearted life.

This week, I’ve been contemplating what we should do with the people outside of our tribes.

It’s cozy and warm inside a tribe, and the people are supportive and non-threatening, so it’s tempting to simply hide there and close off from the rest of the world. When you’re hurting, that might be the right thing to do for awhile – to protect yourself until you have healed enough to step outside of the circle.

But the problem with staying there too long is that it creates a world of “us and them”. When you stay too close to your own tribe, it becomes easier and easier to justify your own choices and opinions and more and more difficult to understand people who think differently from you. Before long, you’ve become suspicious of everyone outside of your tribe, and when their actions threaten your way of life, you do whatever it takes to protect yourself. Fear breeds in a closed-off life.

Last week, I knew it was time to challenge myself to step outside my tribe. I’d been playing it safe too much lately, so when I saw a Facebook posting for an open house at the local mosque, I decided that was a good place to start. I shared the information with friends, but chose not to bring anyone with me. Bringing friends with me into unfamiliar territory makes me less open to conversations with people who are different from me and I didn’t want that – I wanted to go in with an open, unguarded heart. That’s one of the reasons I’ve learned to love solo traveling – it’s scary at first, but it opens me to a whole world of new opportunities and friendships that don’t happen as naturally when I’m hiding behind the safety of a group.

I have traveled in predominately Muslim parts of the world and have always been warmly received, so I knew that the open house would be a pleasant experience. It turned out to be even more pleasant than I’d expected.

IMG_3089First there was Mariam, a young university student who served as tour guide to me and a small group of strangers. Mariam’s easy smile and warm personality made us all feel instantly comfortable. She lead us through the gym to the prayer room and told us why she’s happy that the women pray in a separate area from the men. “I want to be close to God when I pray, not distracted by who might be looking at me or bumping into me.” Before the tour was over, Mariam hugged me twice and I felt like I’d made a new friend.

Then there was the grinning young man at the table by the sign that read “your name in Arabic”. His name now escapes me, but I can tell you he never stopped smiling through our whole conversation and was one of the friendliest young men I’ve met in a long time. He told me, while he wrote my name, that he’d learned some of his Arabic from cartoons. Growing up in Ontario, he’d preferred Arabic cartoons to Barney or Sesame Street.

At the “free henna” table, I met Saadia, who moved here from Pakistan three years ago because she and her husband wanted to give their children a better chance at a good education. Her husband is a doctor who’s still trying to cross all of the hurdles that will allow him to practice in Canada. Before our conversation was over, Saadia had given me her phone number in case I ever want to invite her to my home to give me and my friends hennas.

What struck me, as I left the mosque, was how much grace and courage it takes, when your people have become the object of racism, fear, and oppression, to open your hearts, homes, and gathering places to strangers. Instead of hiding within the safety of their own tribe and justifying their need for protection and safety from others, the local Muslim community threw their doors and hearts open wide and said “let’s be friends. We are not afraid of you – please don’t be afraid of us.”

I experienced the same grace and courage among the Indigenous people of our community last Spring after we were named the “most racist city in Canada”. Instead of retreating into the safety of their tribes, they welcomed many of us into openhearted healing circles. Instead of being angry, they taught us that reconciliation starts with forgiveness and the courage to risk friendships across tribal lines.

I will be forever grateful to Rosanna, who invited me to co-host a series of meaningful conversations with her, to Leonard who handed me a drum and welcomed me to play in honour of Mother Earth’s heartbeat, to Gramma Shingoose who gave me a stone shaped like a heart and shared the story of her healing journey after a childhood in residential school, to Brian who welcomed me into the sweat lodge, and to many others who opened their hearts and reached across the artificial divide between Indigenous and settler.

The more I’ve had the privilege of building friendships with openhearted people whose world looks different from mine, the bigger, more beautiful, and less fearful my life has become.

This week, I’ve read Gloria Steinem’s memoir, My Life on The Road and there is so much in it that resonates with the way I choose to live my life. It’s a beautiful reflection of how her life has been changed by the people she has encountered while on the road. “Taking to the road – by which I mean letting the road take you – changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories – in short, out of our heads and into our hearts. It’s right up there with life-threatening emergencies and truly mutual sex as a way of being fully alive in the present.”

Another quote speaks to how much broader her thinking has become because of her encounters on the road. “What we’ve been told about this country is way too limited by generalities, sound bites, and even the supposedly enlightened idea that there are two sides to every question. In fact, many questions have three or seven or a dozen sides. Sometimes I think the only real division into two is between people who divide everything into two and those who don’t.

We don’t have to spend as much time traveling as Gloria Steinem does in order to live this way – we simply have to open our hearts to the people and experiences in our own communities that have the potential to stretch and change us and lead us past a life with only two sides. Sometimes a conversation with the next door neighbour is enough to help us see the world through more open eyes.

* * * * *

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What happens when you find your tribe?

tribe

There was a time in my life when I was really lonely. If you had been an observer watching my life, you probably wouldn’t have seen much evidence of the loneliness. I was a busy mom with great kids, I had a good job with co-workers who were easy to work with, and I had a few friends and family members around to socialize with, so it didn’t look like a lonely life. But I was lonely nonetheless. (Which leads me to believe that many people who appear to have “put-together” lives are lonely under the surface.)

A full-time career plus small kids is not a lifestyle that leaves a lot of room for friendships. Plus, some of my friends were still single and childless, so we no longer had much in common or were available at the same times. And, even though there were people in my life who cared about me, I wasn’t finding people who wanted to talk about the kinds of things I wanted to talk about.

Together with my family, I went looking for community, and eventually we found it in a lovely small church where people were authentic and progressive. We were well cared for in that community, and people showed up to support some of the most difficult times in our lives. It was really good for quite a few years… but then one day it started to feel like it wasn’t quite enough. Even though there was authenticity there, I wasn’t finding the opportunities I longed for to talk about the things that were becoming increasingly important to me. Nobody was talking about the Feminine Divine, for example, and only a few people seemed to have the same curiosity I had around how our faith journeys might be positively impacted by other faith perspectives. I was curious about Buddhist meditation, for example, and wanted to explore more of an Indigenous approach to spirituality.

Though I found community, and developed some beautiful friendships there, I was still searching for my tribe – people who understood the kinds of questions I was asking and were as eager as I was to have deep and meaningful conversations about the quests we were on. (It’s worth noting here, that I don’t use the words community and tribe interchangeably. You can find one without finding the other.)

I spent a lot of time searching for the kinds of writers and thinkers who were talking about what I was longing to talk about, and my bookshelves were soon full, but that still didn’t feed my ongoing quest for conversation and connection. That was in the days before social media, and all of those people I found who seemed like kindred spirits were far away from where I lived and had only static websites where there was little opportunity for interaction.

When I started blogging a dozen years ago, I started connecting with other bloggers who had similar curiosities, and those connections deepened with the growth of social media, but I still wanted more face-to-face connections.

Things started to shift quite radically five and a half years ago, when I was on the verge of quitting my non-profit job and jumping into self-employment. Though I’d been to lots of conferences and retreats where I found people to connect with, the first time I really arrived somewhere and felt almost instantly that I had found my tribe was the Summer Institute of Authentic Leadership in Action. These people were speaking my language, inviting the kinds of questions that were burning in my heart, encouraging vulnerability and curiosity, and creating safe spaces for deep and honest conversation. I started crying shortly after I arrived – I was so overwhelmed that I’d found what I was looking for.

Since then, I have found the same thing in a few places and my tribe continues to grow. After years of reading her work, I finally had the opportunity to be in retreat with Christina Baldwin, and since then have become deeply connected with her and Ann Linnea and others who are practitioners of The Circle Way. I have also found those connections in the community involved with The Art of Hosting. And, more recently, I have found my tribe within Gather the Women Global Matrix, an organization that exists for the sole purpose of supporting women’s circles around the world.

What makes these gatherings more conducive to tribe-building than the many other places I looked? In my experience, it’s the circle that changes things. All of these gatherings have, at their essence, a circle way of gathering, where you don’t just sit in rows and listen to speakers on a stage, you gather in circles where all voices are heard and real connections are made.

Last week, I attended my fourth annual gathering of Gather the Women. Fifty-four women from seven countries gathered in a beautiful, lush, green retreat space in Florida. We laughed, cried, danced, sang, made art, created ritual, hugged (a lot), dressed as funny non-human characters, had ceremonies, and most of all, we talked. In small circles and large ones, around breakfast tables and under the trees, we talked and talked and talked. We talked about our heartbreaks, our families, our spirituality, our discomfort, and our strength. We talked about sex and gender and human rights and wine and food and our bodies and the earth and the animals and the Goddess and the government(s).

We talked about real things that matter. Rarely did we talk about diets or fashion or shopping (though we didn’t judge anyone if they wanted to) and nobody cared if we wore make-up or if our skin sagged.

We talked and we loved. We loved each other and we loved the trees and we loved the pelicans in the sky and we loved the dolphin and sea otter playing in the cove.

That’s what it’s like to find your tribe. That’s what it’s like to show up in a place where people are authentic and kind and openhearted – where they sit in circle and look each other in the eye. That’s what it’s like when fifty-four women show up to hold space for each other.

When you find your tribe, and they accept you for who you are and believe you are capable of greatness, it can change your life.

Because it’s become so important to me, I continue to grow this tribe, drawing in anyone who dares to be real and flawed and openhearted. Last night, after flying home just the day before, I gathered with my local women’s circle and the same things that happened in Florida happened there. We laughed and cried and opened our hearts. We created safe space for each other by honouring each other and not judging.

Here’s what happens when you find your tribe:

  • you feel truly seen in a way that you’ve rarely been seen before
  • you find safety and you learn how to create it for others
  • you learn to be vulnerable because you’re finally in a place where your mistakes are not being judged
  • you dare to speak of the longing of your heart and you invite others to do the same
  • you grow, because you know that the people in your tribe are cheering for you
  • you learn to take risks in looking into your own shadow and the group’s shadow
  • you want everyone else to know how good it is, so you start growing your tribe the best you can

Because nobody’s perfect, no tribe is perfect. As I’ve said in the past, shadow will inevitably show up wherever people gather. Sometimes there is conflict or jealousy or frustration. That’s all part of what it means to be real and to let people see you for who you really are. Also, as you change and grow, sometimes you outgrow a tribe and realize it’s time to find/build another.

Just as I said last week about how it can take a really long time to tell your truth, it can also take a really long time to find and/or grow your tribe. Sometimes, in my long lonely years, I feared it would never happen for me. There were a few false starts during that time, and each failure sent me into despair. But each time, I rose up once again, more and more determined to find the kinds of places I could be vulnerable and openhearted. Now that it’s happened, I feel incredibly lucky and want to spread the love to everyone I meet. (Yes, that includes you, even if I’ve only met you virtually. My tribe is all-inclusive.)

If you have not yet found your tribe, take heart and don’t give up. Hold onto your intention and it will surely happen for you some day. (And, from now on, even if we have never met, you can consider me part of your tribe.)

Here are a few tips for finding your tribe:

  • If you are interested in women’s circles, join Gather the Women and either find a women’s circle in your own region or gather some friends to start talking about creating one (Gather the Women provides resources to help with that.)
  • Go to the kinds of workshops, retreats, and learning events where people gather in circle and where authenticity is at the heart. The Circle Way is one of those (note: we are very close to launching a new website that will be a useful resource), as are The Art of Hosting and Authentic Leadership in Action. (All of these are international networks.) Another event I’ve had the pleasure of attending and which has been a great tribe-building place is Patti Digh’s Life is a Verb Camp.
  • Be intentional about the kinds of conversations you have. When you begin to be openhearted and you speak out loud your desires to connect with people in more authentic ways, you will eventually find others who have similar longings. (Note: This doesn’t happen with everyone, and you will likely face some rejection, but over time you will learn to discern which people are the most open to these conversations.)
  • Find other resources, books, communities, etc. that inspire you. Some are listed on recommended reading list. Another organization for women’s circles (which I know less about) is the Millionth Circle, based on Jean Shinoda Bolen’s books.

I wish you well as you seek your tribe.

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Leave space for others to fill your needs

weakness and strength

 

I’ve come to Sedona, Arizona, to work with a new client, holding space for what is emerging in an innovative and wholehearted business development process. The work is taking shape as we do it, and we are all opening ourselves to possibilities and new relationships.

Yesterday, I hosted the first circle process, inviting people to bring their stories and speak to the values and needs that will help create the container for the work that will be done here. After they’d shared, I talked about how we had each brought strengths to the circle, but we must also remember that we each brought weaknesses.

“I invite you to be brave enough to bring both your strengths and weaknesses into the circle,” I said. “It’s like a yin yang symbol – we are both the dark and the light, the strength and the weakness. We need both and we need each other. Our weakness creates a beautiful space in which others’ strengths can fill the gaps and make the circle more complete and balanced.”

Shortly after that, in a rather ironic twist, I modelled exactly what I’d been talking about. I didn’t do it willingly, though. I got sick – really sick. Not moving from the bed except to run to the bathroom kind of sick. Covering myself in three layers of blankets and still shivering kind of sick.

Suddenly, though I’m here to hold space for those doing the work here, the roles were reversed and they were holding space for me, bringing mint tea to settle my stomach, tylenol to bring down the fever, a bucket to keep beside the bed, and whatever else I needed.

I felt horrible – both physically and emotionally. I didn’t want to be the needy person here. I wanted to be the one caring for other people. The worst of it is that I had to tell these people who are mostly strangers to me that, if I begin to vomit, someone needs to rush into the room to catch me. You see, I have this horrible tendency to pass out and wake up on the floor when I vomit. So they brought me a bell (the same bell I’d just used to open the circle) and made me promise to ring it if I needed them.

At one point, with a couple of them in the room checking on me, I started to weep. I felt so vulnerable and was finding it hard to need them like this. And yet, I had no choice but to admit my vulnerability and receive their nurturing and care. Not once did they make me feel guilty or ashamed for needing it, but that didn’t stop me from feeling that way.

This morning, as I began the journey back to health, I had to smile at the irony that, though I had told all of them to admit their needs and let others fill them, I was reluctant to do the same. Some things are easier said than done.

Those of us who are used to bringing our strength into the room in order to hold space for others, often forget that we need to give others opportunities to hold space for us. It’s always a humbling experience when we’re the ones in need, but it’s not only good for us to be in a place of humility, it’s good for the collective circle when each of us balances our needs with our offerings.

“Ask for what you need and offer what you can,” says Christina Baldwin in The Seven Whispers. That’s what creates the balance, the yin and the yang of relationship.

Even those of us who teach this need to be reminded to put it into practice.

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On holding space when there is an imbalance in power or privilege

“…whenever I dehumanize another, I necessarily dehumanize all that is human—including myself.”
– from the book Anatomy of Peace

This week, I’ve been thinking about how we hold space when there is an imbalance in power or privilege.

This has been a long-time inquiry for me. Though I didn’t use the same language at the time, I wrote my first blog post about how I might hold space for people I was about to meet in Africa whose socio-economic status was very different from mine.

I had long dreamed of going to Africa, but ten and a half years ago, when I was getting ready for my first trip, I was feeling nervous about it. I wasn’t nervous about snakes or bugs or uncomfortable sleeping arrangements – I was nervous about the way relationships would unfold.

I was traveling with the non-profit I worked for at the time and we were visiting some of the villages where our funding had supported hunger-related projects. That meant that, in almost every encounter I’d have, I would represent the donor and they would be the recipients. I was pretty sure that those two predetermined roles would change how we’d interact. My desire to be in authentic and reciprocal relationship with them would be hindered by their perceived need to “keep the donor happy”.

That challenge was further exacerbated by:

  • a history of colonization in the countries where I was visiting, which meant that my white skin would automatically be associated with the colonizers
  • my own history of growing up in a church where white missionaries often visited and told us about how they were working in Africa to convert the heathens

In that first blog post, I wrestled with what it would mean to carry that baggage with me to Africa. I ended the post with this… I won’t expect that my English words are somehow endued with greater wisdom than theirs. I will listen and let them teach me. I will open my heart to the hope and the hurt. I will tread lightly on their soil and let the colours wash over me. I will allow the journey to stretch me and I will come back larger than before.

In another blog post, after the trip, I wrote about how hard it was to find the right words to say to the people who’d gathered at a food distribution site…What can I say that is worthy of this moment? How can I assure them I long for friendship, not reverence?

That trip, and other subsequent ones to Ethiopia, India, and Bangladesh, stretched and challenged me. Each time I went, I wrestled with the way that my privilege and access to power would change my interactions. I became more and more intentional about entering into relationships with humility, grace, and openheartedness. I did my best to treat each person with dignity and respect, to learn from them, and to challenge my own assumptions and prejudice.

Nowadays, I don’t have the same travel opportunities, but I still find myself in a variety of situations in which there is imbalance. Sometimes I have been the one with less privilege and power (like when I used to work in corporate environments with male scientists, or when I traveled with and offered support to mostly male politicians). Other times, I have access to more power and/or privilege than others in the room (like when I am the teacher at the front of the classroom, or I am meeting with people of Indigenous descent). In each situation, I find myself aware of how the imbalance impacts the way we interact.

This week in Canada, the final report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings related to Residential Schools has come out and it raises this question for all of us across the country. Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the commission, has urged us to take action to address the cultural genocide of residential schools on aboriginal communities. Those are strong words (and necessary, I believe) and they call all of us to acknowledge the divide in power and privilege between the Indigenous people and those of us who are Settlers in this nation.

How do we hold space in a country in which there has been genocide? How do we who are settlers acknowledge our own privilege and the wounds inflicted by our ancestors in an effort to bring healing to us all?

This is life-long learning for me, and I don’t always get it right (as I shared after our first race relations conversation), but I keep trying because I know this is important. I know this matters, no matter which side of the power imbalance I stand on.

If we want to see real change in the world, we need to know how to be in meaningful relationships with people who stand on the other side of the power imbalance.

Here are some of my thoughts on what it takes to hold space for people when there is a power imbalance.

  1. Don’t pretend “we’re all the same”. White-washing or ignoring the imbalance in the room does not serve anyone. Acknowledging who holds the privilege and power helps open the space for more honest dialogue. If you are the person with power, say it out loud and do your best to share that power. Listen more than you speak, for example, or decide that any decisions that need to be made will be made collectively. If you lack power, say that too, in as gracious and non-blaming a way as possible.
  2. Change the physical space. It may seem like a small thing to move the chairs, to step away from the podium, or to step out from behind a desk, but it can make a big difference. A conversation in circle, where each person is at the same level, is very different from one in which a person is at the front of the room and others are in rows looking up at that person. In physical space that suggests equality, people are more inclined to open up.
  3. Invite contribution from everyone. Giving each person a voice (by using a talking piece when you’re sharing stories, for example) goes a long way to acknowledging their dignity and humanity. Allowing people to share their gifts (by hosting a potluck, or asking people to volunteer their organizational skills, for example) makes people feel valued and respected.
  4. Create safety for difficult conversations. When you enter into challenging conversations with people on different sides of a power imbalance, you open the door for anger, frustration, grief, and blaming. Using the circle to hold such conversations helps diffuse these heightened emotions. Participants are invited to pour their stories and emotions into the center instead of dumping them on whoever they choose to blame.
  5. Don’t pretend to know how the other person feels. Each of us has a different lived experience and the only way we can begin to understand what another person brings to the conversation (no matter what side of the imbalance they’re on) is to give them space to share their stories. Acting like you already know how they feel dismisses their emotions and will probably cause them to remain silent.
  6. Offer friendship rather than sympathy. If you want to build a reciprocal relationship, sympathy is the wrong place to start. Sympathy is a one-way street that broadens the power gap between you. Friendship, on the other hand, has well-worn paths in both directions. Sympathy builds power structures and walls. Friendship breaks down the walls and puts up couches and tables. Sympathy creates a divide. Friendship builds a bridge.
  7. Even if you have little access to power or privilege, trust that your listening and compassion can impact the outcome. I was struck by a recent story of how a group of Muslims invited anti-Muslim protestors with guns into their mosque for evening prayers. An action like that can have significant impact, cracking open the hearts of those who’ve let themselves be ruled by hatred.
  8. Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know the way through. Real change happens only when there is openness to paths that haven’t been discovered yet. If you walk into a conversation assuming you know how it needs to turn out, you won’t invite authenticity and openness into the room. Your vulnerability and openheartedness invites it in others.
  9. Don’t try this alone. This kind of work requires strong partnerships. People from all sides of the power or privilege divide need to not only be in the conversation, but be part of the hosting and planning teams. That’s the only way to ensure all voices are heard and all cultural sensitivities are honoured.

I welcome your thoughts on this. What have you found that makes a difference for conversations where there is an imbalance?

 

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