There’s a place I love to walk. I discovered it at the beginning of the summer, when my daughters and I rented a little house in a different neighbourhood of the city than where we’d lived before. It’s a low-lying area along the Red River, ending where it meets the Seine River. It’s an area that’s frequently flooded in Spring when the rivers swell their banks. You can see the marks of past floods on the trunks of the trees that are rooted there.
I love this place because it feels liminal – a space between two realities. Sometimes it is solid land, sometimes it is part of the river, and sometimes it is covered in thick, gooey mud after the water has subsided. It’s special (and somewhat mystical) partly because I can only navigate it when Mother Nature gives me permission. Whenever it is wet, I have to walk a different path on higher ground.
I have a greater propensity for liminality than most people. I go seeking it in nature and in life because I want to understand it, to know it as deeply as I can even though its very nature is to remain always somewhat unknowable. There’s a mystery that draws me to it, and so I make choices that seem baffling to many because a strange siren call beckons me toward this mystical place.
In anthropology, liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage. It’s a space of transition, threshold, ritual, and quest. In most of the literature about it, liminality is a temporary place that has an end-point – a place we eventually emerge out of when our new story begins. It’s what happens when we lose our job, a loved one dies, or we move through puberty into adulthood.
According to Victor Turner, one of the pre-eminent early writers on the subject, liminality can have three dimensions – a moment, a period, or an epoch. Momentary liminal spaces are sudden events, like death, divorce, or illness. Periodic liminal spaces are stages of life, like puberty or the shift into elderhood. Epochal liminal spaces are those that last a lifetime, like when someone steps out of or is exiled from society (monkhood, for example). (Source: The Uses and Meaning of Liminality)
At least in Turner’s early work, there is some apparent judgement of epochal liminality. He talks of “stuckness”, “failed ritual” and “danger”. These qualifying words seem to miss out on the beauty of what is offered from this place of suspended liminality. What about those of us who feel called to lives of liminality? Those of us who live as edgewalkers and wanderers, always witnessing society but never being fully part of it? What about the value of the lessons we learn there? What of the gifts we offer to those who don’t spend their lives in quest as we do?
I don’t know why liminality is so deeply embedded in who I am. I don’t know why I seek it out in such an intentional way that I sold my home last year (as soon as my daughters moved away) and have been nomadic ever since. Perhaps if I were more connected to my own ancient indigeneity, if it hadn’t been so intentionally trained out of me by colonization, religion, and patriarchy, I would have a better understanding of the purpose and calling in this restlessness. Perhaps I would see myself (and the society I live in would see it too) as some kind of medicine woman, explorer, alchemist, or guide. Perhaps there would have even been a ritual way of commissioning me into it – a robe placed across my shoulders, perhaps, and a walking stick offered for the journey.
What I DO know, after years of doubting my purpose, years of wondering why I didn’t fully know what it meant to fit in, and years of judging my restlessness, is that there is value in this calling. It may not be fully understood, in a culture that centres capitalism, colonization and consumerism and distances itself from spirituality and indigeneity, but it is necessary. Perhaps now more than ever, it is of value.
Now, when the world feels increasingly wobbly and the systems we’ve created that used to make us feel secure only add to the wobbliness, we need guides for the liminal spaces. We need people who have the resilience, resources, and capacity to skillfully navigate what is unknown and unknowable, people who understand the quest and aren’t afraid to lead other people through it. We need people with courage and strength to face the uncertainty.
Several years ago, around the time I was leaving my full-time employment to set off on this quest called self-employment, I heard a speaker at a conference say, “The world needs more people who know how to navigate in the dark.” In that instant, the whole world went still and everyone else in the room disappeared. I knew she was talking directly to me. I was very much “in the dark” at that moment, having quit my job just after my then-husband attempted suicide. As much as I felt lost and overwhelmed at that time, though, I had a strong sense that there was something in me that was being strengthened by the darkness for a higher purpose. I’d felt it years earlier, too, when my stillborn son Matthew was born and I felt oddly at peace and empowered as I navigated the darkness and grief of that time.
Perhaps that moment, when the whole room went still and I heard the words of the speaker as a clarion call, was my modern-day version of a commissioning into this work. Perhaps that was my invitation to stop doubting myself and step fully into the confidence that this work was calling me. Not long afterward, I started the work that would eventually lead to my first book and the Centre for Holding Space. I have been faithful to the calling ever since.
Lately I’ve had some new thoughts about liminality and about the value and purpose of this space. It occurs to me that liminality is not just the space in between “what was” and “what will be”, but it’s the space between polarities. It’s the space between black and white, good and bad – even male and female. It’s the space of “transition”, “transcendence” and “transness”. It’s the curved line on the yin-yang symbol
In liminality, old boxes, definitions, polarities, beliefs, and dogmas fall apart. That can feel like a scary and destabilizing place to be. We can’t make sense of this new space from within the limitation of our old version of sense-making. We try but we always fail. Often, we try to put the genie back in the bottle but the genie refuses. The genie is a lover of freedom.
I believe this is part of the reason why the rights of trans people have become such a focal point recently (at least here, in North America). Trans people represent liminality – the space in between male and female – and many people want to put “the genie back in the bottle”. For those people, the world makes more sense, and it feels safer if gender exists only on a binary.
Many people bemoan the fact that more and more people are coming out as trans and that there is greater and greater demand for gender-affirming care. These people have constructed a belief that there is a “gay agenda”, that drag queens are grooming young children into gay lifestyles, and that providing more supportive spaces in schools for trans youth is a threat to family rights. I hear the fear of liminality in these people – they want to return to what they believe was a world that made sense and where they could keep their children safe.
I have a very different view of this issue. I feel hopeful that more and more people are seeing themselves for who they truly are, outside of the definitions and binaries that once boxed them in (and that we, as a culture, were addicted to). I am encouraged by those who find themselves in “epochal liminality”, outside of the limitations of linear, binary thinking. Just as I resisted the language of “stuckness”, “failed ritual” and “danger” in the anthropological literature, I am much more inclined to see the beauty and value of what is transpiring and to challenge the resistance.
This form of liminality is not without precedent among non-human animal species. In an episode of the podcast, You’re Wrong About, there’s a fascinating exploration of queer animals, including an island with an unusually high percentage of lesbian seagulls. According to the research done by the podcast host, our awareness of how much queerness shows up in animals is limited largely because there is fear and lack of funding that limits the research.
I am hopeful that that is changing and that, despite the political push to “put the genie back in the bottle”, there is increasing openness to the liminality of queerness. I am delighted to be witness, for example, to the ways that my daughters and their circles of friends explore gender and sexuality. There’s a playfulness there, an openness to possibility. They inspire me to explore it for myself as well, to step into liminality with them. I don’t feel any of the fear that I might have in my younger, more religious days (or that I witness in some of my friends).
I believe that trans people, and all others across the 2SLGBTQIA+ spectrum, have a gift to offer the world from their place of liminality. I believe that many have gained wisdom from their own personal quests that the rest of us can benefit from. By removing themselves from the boxes that once confined them, they are modeling what it can look like to no longer be confined by the systems we’ve created and that now harm us. I believe that instead of resisting and marginalizing them, we should be listening and paying attention.
I feel similarly about the number of us who are now identifying as neurodivergent. There is freedom in exploring what it means to remove ourselves from what is seen as “normal”. There is gift and possibility when we step out of the frame ourselves, or when we listen to those who do.
Bayo Akomolafe once said, in a conversation in which he talked about the neurodivergence of his son, that “whiteness attempts to flatten everything” and I hear the truth of that. Systems of dominance, like white supremacy, colonization, and patriarchy, attempt to flatten us, to put us all in boxes and to keep us there. Those of us who live in the liminal spaces are forced to reside in spaces that feel more safe for the dominant culture. We lose our uniqueness, we lose the ceremonies that celebrate and empower us to step into our special areas of giftedness, and we are forcibly distanced from our own internal sources of wisdom.
When we break out of those boxes and see ourselves outside of the lenses of those systems, when we enter the liminality of a world that’s less definable, we bring dimension and possibility back to a flattened world. Instead of marginalizing those people who live in liminality, we should be embracing them, calling on their wisdom and gathering around them in the public square.
I want to say to those people who find themselves embracing their own liminality (whether that is in their queerness, their neurodivergence, or some other way), in much the same way as I heard from that speaker several years ago, that “the world needs more people who know how to navigate liminality”.
The world needs YOU, my friend, even if you’re currently feeling lost and overwhelmed and wounded by frightened people. The world needs you to continue to be true to yourself despite the efforts to put you back in a box (or a closet). The world needs you to be courageous and strong even when there are those who fear for your safety.
The world is changing and we need new skills for this changing world. One of those skills is the ability to navigate liminal spaces. Who better to guide us than those who are, by their very nature, liminal?
Today, I’m back in the messy part of the story. I’m slightly agitated, slightly grumpy, and slightly guarded. I’m doing my best to interact with people in a way that is as kind as I can muster. I’m pulling back into my introverted tendencies and I’m trying not to be pissed off that some things are not going the way I’d hoped.
No, nothing has entirely fallen apart. I’m just moving through some of those emotions that tend to come up after a week of intense work, hosting a retreat with lots of complexity, and having to be extroverted for a longer period than is normal for me. Plus my eight-year-old computer may have met its “planned obsolescence” death point and I wasn’t planning to replace it while on this trip (but need a laptop to do my work). Hence the grumpiness and annoyance.
Since the retreat drew to a close a few days ago, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be an unfinished story. Today, as I deal with these emotions and this messiness, I am reminded that I am smack-dab in the middle of an unfinished story.
As an author, educator, and retreat facilitator, I sometimes feel the pressure to be living a more complete story – to have things more figured out and less messy, to be living with more serenity and less grumpiness. I sense that people want me to serve as a model for them of what it means to be spiritually grounded, enlightened and “complete” so that they can hope to be that way some day themselves.
The trouble is that, though I have done a lot of healing and growth work, there is still much to do and I am messily human. Each bit of healing and liberation work I do seems to peel back another layer that I hadn’t been prepared to witness before. I go deeper and deeper, and yet there seems to be no bottom to the depths I need to excavate.
At the retreat last week, I used the story of The Girl in the Velcro Dress to help us explore the layers of things that we carry around, layers that need to be explored, healed, released, and/or deconstructed. During each session, I shared a short part of the story related to whatever content we were discussing. As a visual aid for the story, I held up a dress I’d cut out of Velcro that was covered in pieces representing the weight of expectations, trauma, conditioning, oppression, etc. that the girl was carrying (see image). After the third session, I started peeling pieces off the dress during each session, inviting participants to similarly liberate themselves from whatever burdens they bore.
At the beginning of the last session, I held up the Velcro dress that still had a few pieces stuck to it and said “You may think I’m going to end the story now by removing these last few pieces. That’s not going to happen, though. I don’t believe that in real life, we wrap up stories the way that fairy tales are wrapped up. In real life, we stay messy and incomplete. Instead of setting unrealistic expectations, we learn to accept the messiness and let go of any expectations of perfection. No, the girl kept working on the pieces on the dress and I expect she’ll be doing that until she dies. But now she has some tools and resources and she knows how to be tender with herself in the process.”
What’s most important in this work of liberation and tenderness is not that we liberate ourselves of EVERYTHING we carry on our metaphorical Velcro clothing, but that we liberate ourselves as much as we can from the unhealthy rules and expectations of the systems (family systems, belief systems, cultural systems, hierarchical systems, etc.) that placed those burdens on us in the first place. (Recognizing, of course, that while we live in an imperfect world where unhealthy systems like capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy continue on, there will always be new attempts to put things on our Velcro clothing.)
Some of those “rules” are things like perfectionism, performance measurement, and purity – all rooted in systems (especially capitalism) that delude us into thinking we should strive for perfection, that we should punish ourselves for falling short, and that we should hold stories with happy endings as our highest ideal (just as we did when we were children watching Disney movies).
So… no, I’m not a finished story. I still get grumpy, withdrawn and/or irritated (especially after doing big work) and sometimes I take that out on people I care about. Sometimes my old trauma gets triggered and I make mistakes I regret afterwards.
HOWEVER… I have learned to be more tender with my imperfections. I have learned to hold space for myself when those imperfections send me into self-criticism and I have figured out how to surround myself with people who hold space for me with tenderness and without judgment in those times. I have learned how to set healthy boundaries so that I can look after my needs after big work without letting too many people down. And I have learned to soothe the reactivity in me when I fear my fumbling and my boundaries will result in my safety and belonging being jeopardized.
Perhaps most importantly, I continue (in my fumbling way) to liberate myself from the expectation of perfection, and liberate myself from carrying around other people’s judgement.
And now, after writing this on my phone because my laptop isn’t working, I’m going to have a nap. Because, as Tricia Hersey (of The Nap Ministry) teaches, rest is resistance from the grind culture that capitalism left attached to my Velcro dress.
Melancholy: a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause
That sounds about right for my state of mind this past week. I hesitate to call it depression, because it doesn’t feel that heavy, but there is definitely “pensive sadness” going on and it has no obvious cause.
When this familiar sense of melancholy comes at this time of year, I usually chalk it up to the end of winter, when I’m a little more sluggish from not taking as many long walks in the woods and not getting as much sunshine as I need. I get a little imbalanced when I lose my connection to the natural world. I’m pretty sure that it will pass soon (Spring always revives me), but for now, my creativity is low, my resilience isn’t what it normally is, my emotions are a little tender, and I feel disconnected. I stare at blank pages when I should be writing, I crawl into bed earlier than usual, I cry unexpectedly, and I watch too much Netflix.
A couple of things happened last week that were quite minor, but because of my state of mind, I took them more personally than I normally would. Though none of the people involved meant any harm, my tenderness left me feeling a little lonely and a little rejected. There was no true rejection involved (I still feel well loved by them), but in the middle of my fragility, it’s always easier to make up stories that align with how I’m experiencing the world. Feelings of disconnection often lead to greater disconnection.
Not long ago, I was on the other side of that story, inadvertently wounding someone who was going through her own state of tenderness. Unaware of her emotional state, I said something that normally would have been received with ease, but instead carried some wounding.
“At two, you’re at abstraction.” That’s a line from a Sara Groves song (that I think she borrowed from someone else, but I can’t find the source) that points to the impossibility of fully understanding another person’s reality. Another person’s pain, joy, love, trauma, history – they’re all just abstract concepts for us because we have never lived inside of them. We can never really “walk a mile in another person’s shoes”.
Despite our best efforts to be compassionate and understanding, our well-meaning words can land the wrong way and leave a person feeling wounded, lonely, misunderstood, defensive, angry, etc. That’s one of the reasons why, in our efforts to hold space for other people, we need to avoid falling into the trap of taking responsibility for their emotional response to our words or actions. Each of us is a sovereign individual with our own stories, our own interpretations, and our own emotions and when we take too much responsibility for another person, we diminish their sovereignty.
At a workshop a few weeks ago, Dr. Gabor Maté talked about how trauma can shape a person’s world and change the way they respond to stimuli. When a person grew up with trauma (either in the form of a traumatic event, or as a result of being raised by caregivers with unresolved trauma) their fight/flight/freeze instincts are heightened and they are inclined to over-react to stimuli that brings them back to their traumatic memories. Unresolved trauma, he said, makes it impossible for us to be in the present moment. “When we’re triggered, the emotions that show up are those of the abandoned child. We don’t react to what happened – we react to our interpretation of what happened based in our traumatic memory.”
Even compassionate people can inadvertently trigger someone’s trauma. Think about the last time you said something to another person that you thought was fairly innocuous and they reacted with defensiveness or anger that seemed out of proportion for the moment. There’s a good chance that there was something in what you said that triggered an old wound that they may not even know they still have. In that instant, that person was not the mature adult you thought you were talking to – they were a scared child relying on an instinctual response for their own protection. While they may need your empathy in that moment, and you might make a mental note to adjust your behaviour in the future to avoid triggering them further, you can’t take their autonomy away by trying to fix their problem for them.
When I used to teach a university-level course in communication, I would always start with the following diagram to help my students understand that, in every communication, there are complexities and potential pitfalls that we can’t fully anticipate or mitigate.
(Note: this is my version of a popular model used in communication training, but I don’t know the original source.)
Each of us lives within a unique field of experience that may overlap with other people’s experience, but is never exactly the same. When I want to communicate with you, my intended message is shaped and encoded by my field of experience, which includes factors such as my gender, race, culture, disabilities, lived experiences, language ability, emotional state, etc.
I choose the channel of communication to best offer the message (ie. will I make a phone call, wait until I can talk to you in person, or send an email?). If I am compassionate, I will consider your field of experience when choosing the channel (ie. if you are hearing impaired, a phone call might not be the best method), but I’m limited in how much I can understand your reality so I may make mistakes. On top of that, no matter how carefully I encode the message and how intentional I am about the channel of communication, there is always unexpected noise that can disrupt or distract us at any moment in the process (ie. a child needing attention in the middle of a personal phone call, a disturbing story on the news, a misunderstanding, etc.).
The message crosses over to you and is, in turn, shaped and decoded by your own field of experience and your current circumstance. As I mentioned above, for example, you might be going through a period of tenderness that I had no way of knowing about when I initiated the communication. Even the most well-intentioned communication can go astray, and by the time you’ve decoded it, it may have a very different shape than what I intended. Much of our encoding and decoding processes happen in mere seconds during the course of a conversation, so we aren’t aware of all of what has shaped and reshaped what’s passed between us.
If you choose to engage in two-way communication, you send your own message across the reverse path, back through our fields of experience, risking similar misinterpretation, triggering, etc.
Given the potential complexity of even the simplest conversation, and given the fact that only a small portion of the process is within our control or within our conscious understanding, what can we do to improve the process? How can we be better communicators who wound others less often and receive fewer messages as wounds?
When you are the sender of the message:
• Pay attention to how your message is being shaped by your field of experience.
• Be humble, recognizing the limitation of your understanding of the other person’s field of experience.
• Especially where the differences are vast and there may be power imbalances, do your best to learn about the other person’s field of experience instead of passing judgement (especially if you are the one who holds more power).
• Be aware of the other person’s emotional response and check in when something doesn’t seem to land well, but don’t judge or try to control the emotion.
• Take responsibility for what you’ve said and allow the other person to take responsibility for their response.
• Allow for processing time in the conversation. Pauses may help to alleviate misunderstanding.
When you are the receiver of the message:
• Recognize the limitations that are at play in the sender’s lack of understanding of your field of experience.
• If you trust that the person will honour your current state of mind (ie. if there’s grief, depression, etc. going on), let them know that you may be limited in your capacity to receive.
• If you have a strong emotional response to the message, pause for a moment to check in with yourself. Recognize that the first reaction may be your instinctual desire to protect yourself and may not be fully based in the current situation.
• Hold the other person accountable for their words (especially in the case of harsh or oppressive language) and recognize when it may be in your best interest to stand up for yourself and/or walk away.
• If there is a misunderstanding and the relationship is important to you, reflect back to the person what your interpretation of the message is, based on your field of experience, and offer them an opportunity to reframe it.
• Take the time you need before sending a message back.
• Remember that you have a right to set boundaries and protect yourself.
Each situation is different, and based on how valuable the relationship with the other person is, you may or may not want to invest in the effort it takes to work through misunderstanding. If, for example, you’ve been verbally assaulted by a stranger at a bus stop, you probably won’t have any interest in figuring out how to communicate across your differing fields of experience. If, on the other hand, you love and trust the other person and believe that the relationship will be strengthened by deeper understanding, you’ll want to invest more time and energy in cutting through the noise.
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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.
First 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.
Yesterday, after dropping my daughter off at the pool, I went to a coffee shop to try to get some writing done. Unable to focus, though, I gave in to the distraction of social media, and when I did, I found myself getting more and more angry. I was angry at the terrorists who’ve torn apart so many people’s lives and instilled fear in so many more. And I was angry at the closed-minded people who are responding to the terrorism by becoming protectionist and prejudiced and not offering safe homes for the millions of refugees running away from the terrorists.
Because I was angry anyway, I started extending that anger to people closer to home – people in the coffee shop and people in my family whose actions were disappointing me at the time. Anger needs to feed itself, so it looks for more victims and more people to blame.
When I get angry (or fearful, or sad, or any of those intense emotions that sometimes feel scary and overwhelming), I’m tempted to shut down, to guard my heart and protect myself from further wounding. I’m tempted to pull away from people and become even more self-sufficient. And I’m tempted to find reasons to hate people and blame them for all of the ills of the world.
Last night, I checked out for awhile (Netflix is good for that), but this morning, I knew I needed to do something that would help me resist the temptation to shut down.
The only antidote I know for this kind of reaction in me is to dare to live with an open heart. It’s the hardest choice to make when I’m angry, but the more open my heart is, the less likely I am to let the anger and fear fester and get bigger.
The poet Mark Nepo tells us to be more like fish. “As fish must keep their gills open in order to survive moving through the water, humans must keep their hearts open in order to move through the difficult and wondrous river of experience. Letting life move through an open heart is how we make medicine out of our suffering.”
This morning I decided to be more like a fish.
I posted this on Facebook: “My heart’s been heavy this week, witnessing so much fear, hatred and closed-mindedness. So… let’s do something different. Tell me how you’ve seen love and openheartedness appear this week.”
The responses were simple and breathtaking. One shared about the friend who showed up to help her welcome her new dog. Another applauded her daughter who’d raised $1500 for a rescue mission that helps women get out of the sex trade. Another had seen an elderly white man help a young black boy tie his tie. Still others shared about kindhearted daycare workers, free clinics, supportive husbands, gracious sign-holders, and smiling grand-babies.
My heart started feeling a little bigger and the fresh air moved through my gills as I let the angry air out. I brought that feeling into my work, and was soon coaching clients who shared their vulnerable and brave stories of healing from past abuse and daring to step into their artist calling later in life. My heart grew healthier and stronger with each story that passed through me.
We build resilience when we respond to fear and anger with an open heart. We have to dare to be open to people’s stories and dare to be vulnerable with our own.
But there’s a harder part to this openhearted living that goes beyond being vulnerable with those people who feel safe, and that’s what I had to challenge myself with once the anger had subsided.
Living with an open heart also means daring to be compassionate with those who think differently from me and those who respond to their own fear and anger differently from me.
It wasn’t hard for me to extend compassion to my Facebook friends or coaching clients or even to the innocent Islamic people who are now facing prejudice and hatred because they are associated with the terrorists. Those people are safe and don’t require me to stretch too much. What I find to be much harder is to extend compassion to the terrorists themselves and to the people who are meeting hatred with hatred, spouting racist rhetoric and closing their doors to the Syrian people.
I had to dig deep to remember that these people are all responding to their own fears in the way that makes the most sense for them. Extending compassion does not mean that I need to agree with them or justify their actions, but it means that I have to dare to open my heart enough to see the hurt that turned them into the people they are.
Fear changes us. It makes us fierce in ways that sometimes surprise and even scare us.
When I was sexually assaulted a number of years ago, I went home to the farm to be with my parents. My pacifist, Mennonite dad, who would never allow a gun in the house and who never physically hurt anyone, admitted later that he was shocked by the realization that he was capable of killing another man. He’d never had that temptation before.
When people hurt or threaten people you love, or even if you simply perceive them to do so, it causes fear to rise up and you are suddenly not the rational, peace-loving person you always thought you were. Suddenly, you can think of only one thing – to keep your family safe at all costs. I get that, and I see it happening on a global scale in response to the terrorism we’ve witnessed. I also assume (though I can’t pretend to understand it) that it must be happening in the hearts of the terrorists. Something has made them so fearful and angry that the only response that makes sense to them is to destroy the people and the culture that pose the greatest threat.
There are so many players in this unfolding drama that I don’t understand, but when I remember how my dad was changed in that moment when he realized that someone had raped and tried to murder his daughter, it allows me to open my heart with some compassion to those who are responding out of their own deep wounds. Instead of opening their hearts and living like fish, they chose to close them and to allow the blackness to grow and consume them.
I wish those terrorists and those who are responding with hatred had all had fathers like mine. Perhaps they would have learned to make other choices.
My dad’s surprising rage was not the most memorable lesson of the day. The wisdom that I received from my dad came in the actions he chose just after learning that I’d been raped and nearly killed. After giving me a hug, and then leaving me to my mom’s nurturing arms, he went outside to feed the pigs. I wasn’t there when he fed them, so I don’t know whether he was crying or screaming or throwing things while he fed the pigs, I only know that he fed them. And, because I know my Dad, I expect he was also praying.
He fed the pigs because he needed some physical activity to dispel some of the rage. And he did it because he needed to do something useful and mundane in that moment when his world had been turned upside down. And he prayed because he knew he could only dispel the darkness in his own heart with the help of a Higher Power.
Once he was done, he came back inside with a calmer mind and a heart that dared to remain open. His God and his pigs helped him with that.
When the fear and rage and pain wash over you, it might feel impossible to remember what Mark Nepo said about living with your heart open to the world. Those are the times when you first need to feed the pigs. Or feed the children. Or go for a long walk in the woods. Or make art or music. Or dance. Or swing a hammer.
Do something to alchemize the pain, and then reach for a Higher Power who can help you change your heart. Once you’ve done those things, come back with a calmer mind and a heart that dares to remain open.
Lashing out in your pain will only create more pain and will never solve the problem. Only living with an open heart will allow you to move on without wounding anyone.
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“…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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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