Sometimes you don’t know that you know something until you hear the words come out of your mouth. That’s how it was when I said these words a few weeks ago, while teaching my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program…
“Trauma is the soil in which the patriarchy has grown.”
I’ve thought a lot about trauma and I’ve thought a lot about patriarchy, and I’ve even thought about the links between them, but I hadn’t articulated this thought before. Even as I said it, I realized I was speaking something new into my awareness.
Now that I’ve thought about it more, I realize it’s a bit of a “chicken and egg” situation. Which came first – the trauma or the patriarchy? The patriarchy may also be the soil in which trauma has grown. One nourishes the other, which in turn nourishes the other, and so on, and so on. Did trauma happen to a group of people and so they rose up and began to dominate and create systems of domination to protect themselves? Or did people begin to dominate out of their own selfish ambition and need for power and soon learned that it was easier to dominate traumatized people? I don’t have a sufficient lens on history to analyze this.
Also, you can interchange the word “patriarchy” with any system of dominance (white supremacy, colonization, oppression, heteronormativity, kyriarchy, etc.) and the statement remains applicable. Trauma informs and supports them all.
Consider all of the ways that trauma is used as a tool to help dominant systems uphold their dominance. Indigenous children were ripped out of their families and forced into residential schools where they were stripped of their language and rituals. African people were rounded up, forced onto ships, and brutally enslaved in North and South America. Women are routinely raped in conflict situations. Jewish families were thrust into concentration camps and many were killed in gas chambers.
(Side note: I highly recommend the movie Indian Horse for a gripping story about how the trauma of colonization controls and destroys people.)
The stories go on and on throughout history, and these are just the most notable and horrific. There are so many more subtle ways that trauma is used as well. The #metoo movement, for example, is revealing the many ways in which sexual assault has been used to dominate women in the workforce, in the media, and at home.
None of these stories are “once and done” situations either. Every one of them not only traumatizes the generation most directly impacted, it plants the seeds of trauma into the family systems. The generations to come inherit the trauma of their parents and their grandparents, and so on, and so on. The result is often the kind of dysfunction, disempowerment and addiction that makes it difficult for them to rise up and challenge their oppressors. Trauma is so deeply (and invisibly) rooted in our bodies, that it can take generations to heal it, especially where it has not been named and faced.
Once you have implanted the seeds of trauma into a family system, it becomes easier and easier to dominate the people in that system. Traumatized people no longer need the original, horrific event to make them shrink in fear. All you have to do is offer a subtle reminder of the trauma, and they are triggered into their fight, flight or freeze reactivity (also known as “amygdala hijacking”), and in that state, they are easier to control and/or manipulate. An abused child, for example, will continue to flinch at a raised hand or raised voice long after the abuse is over and will continue to go to great measure to find protection against what they see as a dangerous world.
Sometimes it seems that we now have so much trauma running through our systems that there are fewer people WITHOUT trauma than WITH trauma (either direct or generationally inherited). It seems we’re all the walking wounded, trying to function in a world that triggers us on every front.
If you want to understand how trauma is used as a tool of domination, consider the treatment that Black people (particularly in the U.S., but also in Canada) have received from the police. Unlike white people, they can never assume that they are safe in the presence of the police, because they have seen too many people like them killed and/or unfairly arrested or brutalized by the police. In a traumatized system like that, you only have to bring a police officer into the environment to cause a state of panic in many people. That’s a system of dominance which not only traumatizes people, but gives those in power an excuse to continue to dominate. They assume that their experience of traumatized Black people (who might respond with belligerence, anger, resistance, etc., as a result of their fight/flight/freeze activation) is universal and even when Black people are calm and cooperative (as was the case in Starbucks recently), they assume the worst and arrest them needlessly. Dominance continues.
But trauma doesn’t only impact those being dominated. When there’s trauma in a system, in impacts people at all levels of it. I think it’s interesting to note, in fact, that it’s often the people with seemingly the most power in a system who are the most reactionary when they’re triggered. Why, for example, if women have less power than men, is it usually men who commit acts of violence? I suspect it’s partly because they’ve had less reason to develop coping strategies and less encouragement to heal and name the trauma. (I was at a workshop recently, where men were doing some healing work and, in one particularly poignant moment, three men were at the centre of the circle weeping and holding each other. It was one of the most powerful and rare moments of healing I’ve ever witnessed and I wish that more men could find themselves there.)
A new concept came into my awareness lately – that of allostatic load. (Thanks Sam.) According to Wikipedia, “it’s ‘the wear and tear on the body’ that accumulates as an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress. It represents the physiological consequences of chronic exposure to fluctuating or heightened neural or neuroendocrine response that results from repeated or chronic stress.” Here’s a simple Youtube video that explains it. And Roxanne Gay wrote about it recently in her New York Times column.
While anyone can suffer from allostatic load, I think it’s fair to assume that those who’d be most susceptible to it are those who’ve been most oppressed by systems of dominance. According to Wikipedia, “in environments of chronic or frequent activation of the stress response, such as exposure to violence or trauma, poverty, war, hypoxia, or low rank in a social hierarchy, the stress response constantly disrupts homeostasis resulting in overexertion of physiological systems.” When allostatic load is a factor, people’s bodies can shut down and their brains have less capacity for complex thought and solution-finding. That puts them at a serious disadvantage and makes them easier to dominate.
So… what should we do about this? Should we work at healing the trauma or work at dismantling the systems that created and utilize it? Again, it’s a chicken and egg situation. One informs the other and neither can be entirely isolated from the other. You can’t dismantle a system when all of the people involved in its dismantling have unaddressed trauma. And if you heal trauma without addressing the source of the trauma, you’ve only found a short-term solution – the trauma will rear its head somewhere else.
We need lots of healers and lots of dismantlers. We need people to deepen their understanding of trauma so that they can hold space for it without further contributing to it. We also need warriors who will challenge the systems so that the dominance stops.
As I said in my last article, we should all be in a quest for our own sovereignty, so that we can meet each other as whole and healthy people rather than damaged people who harm each other. But it’s nearly impossible to seek sovereignty when you haven’t worked first to heal trauma that took your sovereignty away. That is, after all, what’s happening when the dominant systems utilize trauma to keep people disempowered – they’re colonizing people and taking their sovereignty away. Because sovereign people are dangerous to those who want to dominate them.
But this is not the end of the story. All of us have the right to reclaim our sovereignty. All of us have the right to live free of trauma and domination.
If you are a traumatized individual, start with your own healing so that you don’t pass the trauma on to others. But don’t stop there. Look for ways of healing at a collective, systemic level. This is something I’m learning more and more about as I dive into healing methodology like family systems constellations (which I had the pleasure of studying with Francesca Mason Boring recently). If we don’t address the trauma rooted in our ancestral lineage and family systems, we fall short of what we need to do to change the future.
If we heal our traumatized systems (and ourselves) and claim our sovereignty, I believe we can become healthy and whole together.
p.s. This is a subject we cover in the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. Registration is now open for the session that starts in July.
Not sure how to engage in healthy conversations online? Here are some tips:
- If they didn’t ask for advice or fixing, don’t assume that they want it.
- If you don’t want advice or fixing, go ahead and say you don’t want it.
- If you weren’t there, don’t assume you know what happened or how to interpret what happened. And don’t assume your opinion is needed.
- You don’t belong in every conversation. Choose wisely and respect other people’s boundaries.
- If someone has strong feelings about something, don’t tell them how they ‘should’ be feeling.
- If you start a conversation, take responsibility for how people are treated in that conversation stream (and shut it down if necessary), but don’t take responsibility for their feelings about it.
- If a person who’s more marginalized (or abused, ostracized, etc.) than you shares a story of their marginalization, believe them, even if it implicates people like you.
- If you are triggered by something, resist the urge to respond out of a fight/flight/freeze/tend&befriend mindset. Walk away and (if necessary) return when you’re more grounded.
- When you make a mistake, admit it, make reparations, apologize if necessary, but don’t over-explain or justify your actions. And don’t delete your mistake if there is learning to be had from the conversation around it.
- If someone exhibits the kind of behaviour you wouldn’t allow in your home, you don’t need to allow them in your social media stream.
- It’s not your job to convince people of the truth as you see it. If they’re intent on arguing, but the argument exhausts you, walk away.
- Consider it a general rule-of-thumb that if the privacy of something is set at “public” it’s shareable, and if it’s “friends only” it’s not.
- If someone regularly shares selfies, photos of their food, or other things you think are trivial, just stop following them instead of offering your opinion.
- If you need comfort or support, go ahead and ask for it, but if you’re feeling really vulnerable or raw, consider asking in a smaller container (ie. a private group) rather than out in public.
- Comments like “not ALL white people” or “not ALL men” are defensive and never helpful in a conversation. If that’s all you have to offer, step away from the conversation.
- If you don’t want Mark Zuckerberg to share your personal information with the Russians, don’t post it online.
- Just because you’ve known someone since kindergarten, doesn’t mean you have to accept their friend request.
- Tend your own heart first, then tend the hearts of those closest to you. If you still have energy after that, tend those who have the fewest protectors or supporters.
- If someone shares something relevant to their culture, race, gender, etc., and it’s outside of your experience, ask questions respectfully (if it seems the right place for it), but don’t offer judgement or critique.
- When in doubt, be kind.
I am far from an expert in issues related to diversity, inclusion, or decolonization but because my work involves holding space for increasingly complex conversations in increasingly complex environments, I make it my mission to learn as much as I can in order to do better and to serve better (and to pick myself up after my mistakes). Especially as someone who has (largely) benefited from a colonial system that has harmed others, I take it as my responsibility to face my own discomfort in order to work toward a better future. A lot of damage can be done in a space where we have unexamined privilege and power imbalances, combined with a conversation host who has not done some work in facing her own unconscious bias, so I am trying (with as much humility as I can) to decolonize myself and the spaces where I work.
A couple of years ago, I set an intention to spend a year decolonizing my bookshelf and centring marginalized voices by reading only books written by writers who were not from the dominant culture. (This year, I’m trying to do the same with courses, workshops, and conferences I attend.) I wasn’t entirely successful (I wrote about that here), but I was, nonetheless, radically changed by the experience. My worldview was expanded, I became much more aware of my own unconscious biases, and my ability to hold space for brave conversations was considerably stretched. AND… I discovered that I actually loved this shift. Now I find myself gravitating toward these writers because they inspire and challenge me and bring a lot of richness to my life. In the two years since this pledge, I still rarely seek out the most common writers from within the dominant culture, but instead, seek out those working at the edges in more complex spaces (whose ideas are less amplified by mass media, publishing houses, etc.).
People often ask me to provide them with resources that will help them stretch their worldviews, decolonize themselves, and hold space for more complexity and diversity, so I’ve put together the following list of books, articles, and videos that have influenced me in recent years. Most of the voices on this list are from non-dominant groups. (I left fiction off this list, simply because the possibilities for that list felt too endless.)
Before I go there, though, I highly recommend that you also seek out teachers from within these groups that you can PAY FOR what you’re learning. A good place to start is the online course Diversity is an Asset, or a deeper version, Social Justice Intensive, by my friends Desiree Adaway and Ericka Hines. (I participated in Diversity is an Asset the first time they offered it, and because I know that they are both life-long learners with insatiable hunger for evolving ideas, I know that the content has grown even better since then.)
(Note: This list is in no particular order. And there are things missing from it that I simply forgot to save links for.)
Articles and blog posts:
- Intent vs. Impact: Why your intentions don’t really matter (this article helped me understand the damage we do when we try to hide behind “well I didn’t really MEAN it that way”)
- White Women’s Tears and the Men Who Love Them (this is one of the first articles that helped me understand the damage we do when we centre our own feelings over those more marginalized than we are)
- What reconciliation feels like to people “locked in the bathroom” for a century, by Niigaan Sinclair (an Indigenous perspective on colonization and the efforts to “reconcile”)
- What cultural appropriation is and why you should care, by Shree Paradkar (a well-thought-out response to some recent controversy in Canada about an “appropriation prize”)
- A short comic that provides a simple and profound understanding of privilege, by illustrator Toby Morris
- Dear White People, by Bayo Akomolafe (an African man’s perspective on colonialism and appropriation)
- Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics, by Kimberle Crenshaw (the original piece in which she coined the phrase “intersectional feminism”)
- The Cycle of Socialization, by Bobbie Harro (helps to gain a better understanding of how we were socially conditioned to think and behave the way we do)
- Please don’t tell me I’m in a “safe place”, by Jamie Marich, PhD (on holding space for trauma and not assuming you understand what makes another person feel safe)
- From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces, by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens (the academic article that first introduced me to the concept of Brave Space, which I now use in my work)
- White People: I Don’t Want You To Understand Me Better, I Want You To Understand Yourselves, by Ijeoma Oluo
- Nine Phrases Allies Can Say When Called Out Instead of Getting Defensive, by
- Strategies in Addressing Power and Privilege, by Leticia Nieto, Psy. D., and Margot F. Boyer (a helpful framing of status, rank, and power that I use in courses I teach)
- White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo (this is the academic article in which DiAngelo coined the phrase “white fragility”)
- Here’s How We Can Center Queer & Trans Survivors In The #MeToo Movement, by Neesha Powell (a great reminder of the people who get overlooked in movements for social change)
- Understanding White Privilege, by Francis E. Kendall, Ph.D (understand white privilege as an institutional (rather than personal) set of benefits granted to those of us who, by race, resemble the people who dominate the powerful positions in our institutions)
- The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People (so we can do better in how we include people in our language)
- Six Backhanded “Compliments” That Mentally Ill People are Tired of, by Sam Dylan Finch (we can do better in holding space for those with mental illness
- Indigenous Nationhood Can Save the World, by Niigaan Sinclair (how we can all benefit from a more Indigenous perspective on nationhood)
- I need to talk to spiritual white women about white supremacy (Part 1), followed by Part 2, by my friend Layla Saad (you can pay for her wisdom on Patreon)
- The White Fragility Script: The Five Act Experience [INFOGRAPHIC], by Leesa Renee Hall (become a patron to receive her Expressive Writing Prompts)
Podcasts and Videos:
- Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment: A developmental strategy to liberate everyone, by Leticia Nieto with Margot F. Boyer, Liz Goodwin, Garth R. Johnson & Laurel Collier Smith (a powerful analysis of the psychological dynamics of oppression and privilege – useful especially for conversation hosts)
- The Inconvenient Indian: A curious history of Native People in North America, by Thomas King (one of the best resources to help with an understanding of colonization in North America – heavy content, but surprisingly easy to read and rather humorous)
- Antagonists, Advocates, and Allies, by Catrice M. Jackson (an unflinching wake up call for white women who want to become allies with black women)
- Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, by adrienne marie brown (an invitation to better understand personal and collective relationships with change)
- Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer (I love this book! It is a beautiful combination of stories and ancient wisdom that changes the way you see the world and our relationships to each other and the world.)
- Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (in an open letter to his son, Coates paints a picture of race in the U.S.)
- All About Love and Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, by bell hooks (she has a way of telling unflinching truths with love and openness)
- So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo (particularly about the racial landscape in the United States)
- Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People, by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald (from the co-developers of the Implicit Association Test, a really useful test that you can take online to help you understand your own biases)
- Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair, by Sarah Schulman (I’m not sure I agree with everything in this book, but it was still really helpful in expanding my thinking about the possibilities for generative conflict)
- Connecting to our Ancestral Past: Healing through Family Constellations, Ceremony, and Ritual, by Francesca Mason Boring (I’ve been intrigued with family systems constellations for some time and was happy to find this Indigenous lens on the teachings)
- Whose Land is it Anyway? A Manual for Decolonization (this book just came out and I haven’t read it yet, but it looks helpful – you can download it for free)
- When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, by Patrisse Khan-Cullers and Asha Bandele (a powerful and personal story of how she became an activist)
- Fire Shut Up in My Bones, by Charles M. Blow (a gut-wrenching story of poverty and race)
- Gender Failure, by Rae Spoon & Ivan E. Coyote (what it’s like to be gender non-conforming)
- Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay (read anything by Roxane Gay – she’s a powerful writer)
- Unbowed, by Wangari Maathai (Nobel Prize winner who mobilized women to plant trees across Kenya)
- Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War, by Leymah Gbowee (facing conflict in Liberia with creativity and strength)
- Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter: Growing Up with a Gay Dad, by Alison Wearing (she also wrote Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey, which I also really enjoyed)
- Living for Change: an Autobiography, by Grace Lee Boggs (an activist’s experience in Detroit)
- The Reason You Walk, by Wab Kinew (growing up with a father who’s a residential school survivor)
- A Long Way Gone: memoirs of a boy soldier, by Ishmael Beah (growing up in conflict in Sierra Leone)
- Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, by Immaculate Ilibagiza (a powerful story of genocide)
- Laughing All the Way to the Mosque, humour/memoir by Zarqa Nawaz (a Canadian Muslim writer who wrote also created the sit-com Little Mosque on the Prairie)
- Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam, by Zainab Salbi (the founder of Women for Women International, about what it was like to grow up with Saddam Hussein as a family friend)
- Femme in Public, by Alok Vaid-Menon (powerful poems about being brown and gender non-conforming)
- Calling Down the Sky, by Rosanna Deerchild (about her mother’s experiences in residential school)
Two days before the end, I sat on a stool next to the armchair where Mom lay. When she leaned toward me, I leaned in too, afraid I’d miss what she’d say with her disappearing voice.
“I don’t know how to do this,” she said, looking at me with eyes that were searching but unfocused. My own words worked their way past a lump in my throat. “I don’t know how to do this either,” I said. And then we just sat there and breathed together, our foreheads nearly touching as we imagined this great gaping space in front of us that neither of us knew how to navigate.
She was soon to cross over into the afterlife. I was soon to cross over into the land of motherless daughters. Neither of us had any idea how we would make the journey. Neither of us had any advice or platitudes or ways of fixing this. Neither of us could offer to go on that journey with the other. All we had was this empty space… this liminal space… where we could sit together and fix our gaze upon each other and find an anchor in each other’s eyes.
Looking back over our 46 years together, that moment was quite possibly the most honest and sacred moment we ever shared. We had no expectations of each other. We had no reason to pretend we were anyone other than exactly who we were. There was no point in acting like we had wisdom or answers the other didn’t have, and no point in clinging to old hurts or misunderstandings that had never been (and would never be) resolved. All of that was stripped away and all we had was this moment… this meeting at the intersection of who we were and who we were about to become.
All we had was the space of “I don’t know.” And in that moment, it was the most painfully beautiful place to be.
I’ve come to believe that is the most potent space we can meet people in our relationships… the space of “I don’t know”. It’s the place where we shed our expectations and pretences. It’s the place where we reveal ourselves to each other and admit that much of what we think we know is simply smoke and mirrors. It’s the place where we seek no heroes or answers, where we ask only to be anchored by each other’s presence.
It’s the place where the true work of holding space can happen.
It’s not often that we find ourselves in this space with other people. It’s not often that we are both strong enough and vulnerable enough to offer that kind of space to each other. It goes against every instinct to protect ourselves and to prove ourselves. It takes effort and courage and a whole lot of trust. For those of us who’ve been wounded, marginalized, and oppressed, it’s even more difficult than for those who walk in the world with privilege and more assurance of safety. Perhaps, in fact, it’s the kind of space that some of us only enter in our final days on earth, when we have nothing left to lose.
Imagine, though, if more of our relationships found us in such a place. Imagine if you could trust people in your life to hold you and offer you an anchor no matter how much you’ve failed them or betrayed them in the past. Imagine if you could enter more conversations with people without having to posture and protect yourself.
We may never find perfection in our quest for this kind of space, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it more often. I like to imagine, for example, what it would be like to intentionally seek to enter that kind of space when there are people working through conflict or reconciliation. What if, for example, those of us who are settlers in this country, could drop our baggage at the door and seek to show up with our Indigenous brothers and sisters in that kind of way, admitting that we don’t know what to do and showing our willingness to seek answers from the liminal space? And what if those who govern our country – our politicians – were willing to stop their posturing in order to sit in that space with each other, people from all sides of the political spectrum admitting that they don’t know the way forward but are willing to plant seeds for the future together? And what if we could do that with our own children? Or our parents? Or our communities?
Recently, my friend Beth and I have been practicing sitting in that space together. We have some parallel stories (ie. we’ve both recently ended a 20+ year marriage and we’re raising children around the same age). Plus we’ve both had an increasing awareness of our need, as settlers in Canada, to decolonize ourselves and we’ve had a recent experience together that heightened that awareness. In addition, we’ve been navigating some challenges in a community that is close to both of our hearts. So there is a liminal space element to both of our lives lately, as we evolve in the way in which we show up in our work, our families, and our communities.
Beth and I have long conversations over Zoom, where we just talk with little expectation of outcome or even clarity. One of us will text “can we circle up?” and we’ll find time to hold space for each other in a little virtual circle on our computer screens. Often our conversations end on a similar note as we began – still confused as to a way forward. In the middle of it, though, we each find an anchor with which to ground our wobbly selves.
We are meeting in the space of “I don’t know”. As we do so, we have to regularly renew our commitment and intention to keep laying down our pretences and instincts toward self-protection. This is not a natural space to be in with another person – it takes effort and humility. We want to impress each other, to prove our value, and we want to make sure we’re safe before we fully trust each other. We have to fight those inclinations in order to offer our vulnerability in such a space. We have too many stories of betrayed trust in the past to rush into an unguarded relationship like this.
I am lucky enough to have a few other friendships on similar journeys, and each one of them takes similar commitment and practice. The space of “I don’t know” can never be taken lightly – it is a great privilege that must be fostered and nurtured before it can grow into a plant that bears fruit. But once you taste of that fruit, you find yourself craving more and more of it, and relationships without it become less and less tolerable. And when you lose it, there is a deep grief and a hard journey back to that level of trust once again.
Sometimes I find it especially challenging to enter into this space because I am, in more and more of the spaces in which I find myself, a teacher/mentor/coach/facilitator who is expected to know things. People look to me with expectation and hope that I will help them find clarity and purpose, and I don’t want to let them down. I find myself becoming guarded sometimes, wanting to prove myself and not let people see me vulnerable. And yet… often it serves my students and clients well if I am willing to enter the space of “I don’t know” with them, to be humble enough to be in the learning with them, to show up willing to be shaped by our collective experience in the liminal space. (It’s a fine line to navigate and I don’t always get it right.)
The culture most of us live in has conditioned us to resist the space of “I don’t know.” Especially in North America (and I suspect in Europe as well, though my experience is limited), we have attempted to eradicate all chaos and insecurity from our culture. Out of our fear of uncertainty, we turn toward authoritarian leadership that, we believe, will keep us safe and always know how to make the path clear in front of us. We want assurances and safety and so we surround ourselves with people who look like us and talk like us. We resist the risk of engaging in spaces that make us feel like we don’t know what we’re doing, and so we marginalize those people who potentially bring that kind of risk into our lives.
But we can never live fully secure lives. We can never fully eradicate chaos. Every one of us will face illness, loss, death, and political instability. It’s simply a part of life. And the more we practice becoming comfortable in the space of “I don’t know” the more resilient we’ll become and the more expansive and beautiful our lives will be.
I believe (though I am far from an expert on such matters) that there are Indigenous cultures that understand how to navigate this space much more comfortably than those of us from European decent. Having sat in sweat lodges and other ceremonies and conversations with Indigenous people here and in other parts of the world, I have witnessed this invitation to sit in the liminal space, to release our baggage and false sense of our own importance. I have heard words spoken to me in Maori, Cree, and Choctaw that explain these concepts better than any English words I know.
As I learn to decolonize myself, I am learning how to receive the wisdom they have to offer without appropriating it or pretending I know something I’ve only recently begun to explore. Inherent in many of these traditions is a deep connection with the earth, which teaches us to be patient in the fallow seasons, to trust the unfurling or dying when the seasons shift, and to surrender ourselves to the mystery of it all. In New Zealand, for example, I was recently taught about the Maori concept of “a te wa” – “when the time is right” – that teaches us patience in the discomfort of waiting. I seek to trust the wisdom of “a te wa.”
In the liminal space, we need that kind of patience. We need the ceremonies and rituals that allow us to stay present for the discomfort. We need the teachers who can model how to stay present. And we need the relationships that anchor us there.
I don’t know how to fix much of the political mess in the world. I don’t know how to eradicate poverty or racism or prejudice of any kind. I don’t know how to help a friend whose life has been deeply altered by time spent in prison. I don’t know how to ensure that women can walk in the world without fearing sexual assault. I don’t know how to parent a child with the kind of anxiety I’ve never navigated in my life. I don’t know how to repair the damage when trust has been lost in a community. I don’t know how to navigate the world as a single mom when my children begin to move out of our home. I don’t know how to hold space for a friend or family member whose lives have suddenly been threatened by gang members. I don’t know how to repair the damage that has been done by settlers in my lineage who took what wasn’t theirs to take.
There are so many things I don’t know. And I don’t want you to give me the answers. I simply want you to meet me there… in the space of “I don’t know.”
* * * * *
Note: This is similar to the content I teach in my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. The next offering starts in June 2018.
“Wow. You’re the first psychiatrist to introduce himself to me,” I said to the man who stood in front of me with his hand outstretched. “The other two ignored me and never gave their names. I wondered if I had become invisible.” I reached out to shake his hand.
I’d been at my former husband’s bedside for a couple of days, waiting for them to move him from a bed in the emergency room to one in the psychiatric ward. I was worn out and fed up and didn’t have any energy left for niceties.
“That’s because they don’t want you to know who they are,” he said, the frustration in his voice echoing mine. “Everyone in this hospital is afraid of being held accountable for what they say and do, so they’re happiest if you forget them. Nobody wants to get sued or reprimanded for giving you bad advice, so we do only what’s necessary and no more.”
For the next twenty minutes, he unloaded his frustration on me. It was neither professional nor appropriate, given the fact that I was sitting at the bedside of a man who’d attempted suicide just days before, but it was the first time anyone in the hospital was speaking to me with any degree of authenticity or openheartedness, so I didn’t mind. With story after story, he told me of the deep disillusionment he felt, stuck in a system that made him doubt whether he was doing any good in the world. “We start out in this work because we have good hearts and we want to help people,” he said. “The system crushes that in a person. I decide to quit my job at least once a day.”
The next week in the psychiatric ward bore out the truth of what he’d said. It was a bleak environment, where staff followed the rules and did what they were told but had little heart left to provide real care for their patients.They took away my husband’s belt and shoe laces, locked the door behind him, and then mostly ignored him for the rest of the week. (I could come and go, but only when I was buzzed in.) Once a day (except on weekends), a psychiatrist would visit for about fifteen minutes a day for a brief conversation meant only to check whether the meds they’d prescribed were working, nothing more. Once, when I approached the psychiatrist assigned to him (when there was finally some consistency and not a new one every day) at the nurses’ station to ask whether there was more I could do to support my husband, he told me that our time was up and he wouldn’t talk to me. I’d have to wait until the next day.
I threatened to take my husband home or to find an alternate facility if there wasn’t more care or counselling offered to him. “If you take him home,” he said, coldly, “you do so against my advice and I will cut off his prescription.” I felt trapped. If I risked taking him home, he might have a relapse in front of our children, but if he stayed there, he might never lose that dead look in his eyes.
Desperate, I reached out to friends who worked in mental health and found a private psychologist who was willing to see my husband. I convinced the nursing staff my husband needed a “hall pass” for an afternoon (I’m not sure what excuse I made up, but I couldn’t tell the truth or I’d be accused of interfering with his care) and I snuck my husband out of the psych ward so that I could take him to see a psychologist.
That week tested every bit of strength and courage I had. During the day, I was fighting the system, serving as a fierce advocate for my husband. In the afternoons, I would drive away from the hospital weeping from the exhaustion, grief and fear of it all. Then, when I neared home, or my daughters’ school or the soccer field, I’d wipe away the tears, slip on an invisible mask, and become the supportive, strong mom my children needed. When other parents on the soccer field would ask where my husband was, I’d give some vague answer about a business trip or meetings. It wasn’t a safe enough environment for the truth. Changing the subject, I’d smile and make small talk and pretend that there was nothing more important to me in that moment than a soccer game. Then I’d drive home and feed my daughters, and when they were in bed, I’d muffle my screams and tears with my pillow. The next day, I’d do it all again.
I’m not sure why this memory came back to me recently, more than seven years after it happened, but I suppose there was still some residual grief and trauma stuck in my body that needed to be held for awhile. I’m not even sure what conclusions I want to draw from it for the purpose of this post, but I’m going with it anyway, because it reminds me of so many of the reasons why I keep believing this work I do, teaching people how to hold space for each other and for themselves, is so vital. Some days I’m tempted to go sit at the doors of that hospital to try to reach out to the spouses and daughters and parents who look the most terrified and say “if this hospital hurts you, come back and sit with me awhile”. Some days I want to lobby the health department to invest in my course or one like it for everyone in the system, starting with the leaders who decide how care is given.
When these memories started to resurface, I knew that it was time to extend special care to myself, letting myself shed some of the tears that got stuck in my throat, letting myself release the anger that I stuffed down in order to be a supportive mother and wife, and going for a good massage to release what’s still in my body. One thing I know for certain is that the work that I do in the world is only as good as the care I extend to myself. Unless I give myself time for healing and rest, I can not hold space for the healing of others. (That’s what the next few weeks will be about, as I replenish myself at the end of a very full year.)
As I reflect on this story, there are a few things that it continues to teach me:
- Good people with good intentions can have their hearts shrivelled up by systems that put rules and policies and fear of reprisal above compassion and humanity. What can we do about that? I don’t know if there’s a perfect answer, but I do know that some systems need to be dismantled, overhauled or abandoned, while others need new leadership that puts humanity before profit or rules. I have had very different hospital experiences (especially when I was in the hospital for three weeks before having my stillborn baby, when I encountered remarkable compassion and care), but in that particular situation, it seemed everyone I encountered, from the security guard who yelled at me for parking in the 15 minute zone when I was desperate to get my husband into emergency to the psychiatrists and nurses in the psych ward had become jaded and unfeeling.
- We can’t hold space for people if we let our fear of accountability get in the way of doing what we feel is best. This one goes pretty deep and is multi-layered. For one thing, this fear of accountability is systemic in a patriarchal, hierarchical, consumer-driven culture that is transactional rather than relational and that focuses on punitive rather than restorative justice. When the nurses in the psych ward took away my husband’s belt and shoelaces and locked the door, they were checking off all of the right boxes on the patient intake process, but they failed to look after his real needs. When the psychiatrists wouldn’t give their names, they’d lost touch with the reason they were in a helping profession.
- Holding space is an act of culture-making – it breaks the rules of the dominant culture and moves us into a deeper way of connecting.When we stay trapped in what is acceptable in the dominant culture, we lose our sense of community and compassion and we stay stuck in what Jung refers to as the “first half of life” where we see the world as binary and bound by rules and where we focus primarily on the needs of our own egos. In the “second half of life” we undo much of what was accomplished in the first half in order to get to a deeper heart of human life. We begin to see the many shades of grey rather than just the black and white. Systems, like the mental health care system that was my source of frustration, often get stuck in “first half of life” thinking and have a notoriously difficult time evolving because of their size and unwieldiness.
- Caregiver trauma needs more attention and acknowledgement.Though friends and family were as supportive as they could be, the bulk of the emotional labour of that week and the ones that followed were on me. And yet… not a single one of the professionals we spoke to that week paid any attention to how my husband’s suicide attempt was impacting me or how it felt to have his complex emotional needs and the needs of my children (who’d almost lost their dad) resting fully on my shoulders. (The same was true fifteen years earlier, the first time my husband attempted suicide.) I was an afterthought – not even given a few minutes at the nurses’ station when I was desperate for answers. Plus I had an internalized story of how I had to be the strong one and wasn’t allowed to fall apart. I didn’t seek therapeutic support until years later – hence the trauma that still shows up in my body now and then.
- You can’t tell what a person is holding when they’re making small talk on the sidelines of a soccer field. Every day, we encounter complex people with oceans of emotions hidden just under the surface. Some of them are so well practiced at hiding it all that they hardly remember that the emotions are there. Some of them are newly raw, with just a thin veil hiding what they don’t feel safe enough to reveal. If we keep this in mind, it helps us extend grace to the person who responds with more anger than seems warranted when the barista gets his coffee order wrong, or the person who runs away at the first hint of conflict. They may not want us to hold space for them in that moment (all I wanted from the other soccer parents was that they allow me to pretend everything was okay, not that they do or say anything that would crack me open at that moment), but they DO want our grace and patience.
If you want to know more about what it means to hold space, or you want to deepen your practice so that you don’t become jaded like the healthcare professionals I encountered, consider joining the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program that starts in January. There are only a few spots left – perhaps one of them is yours.
Everyone is talking about what happened in Charlottesville last weekend, but the problem with much of the response to this event is that it gives us a clear “them” to vilify. “Those horrible neo-nazis and white supremacists. Can you BELIEVE what they’re doing and saying?”
When we isolate them and their extremism, we miss the point that white supremacy is part of our culture and it’s something that ALL WHITE PEOPLE benefit from.
“The overtly racist White Supremacists marching in Virginia are not a part of a binary, they’re part of a scale. When we capitalize the words “White Supremacy” and treat it like a monstrous philosophy, it is an extreme that can be handily rejected by the majority of whites.
“However, on the same spectrum, less extreme, are the various forces that lead to the overrepresentation of whites in nearly every desirable facet of society, and to the contempt and distrust with which POC are seen. We have decided to call these things “white privilege,” but one rarely mentioned aspect of white privilege is the privilege to use language to pretend it isn’t white supremacy. Richard Spencer and his ilk are the id, not an aberration but rather a natural byproduct of unchecked white privilege.” From the article Why Privilege is White-Washed Supremacy.
If we all benefit from it, then we all must participate in dismantling it. This is not just a leadership problem (though good leadership would certainly make a difference). It’s not just an American problem (there’s lots of racism here in Canada too). It’s a problem that every one of us can participate in addressing.
Here are some things that you can do to help dismantle white supremacy. (Note: this list is meant primarily for white people and it emerges out of my own years of wrestling with my whiteness.)
1.) Do an inventory of how white your lens and life are. Do you surround yourself with white friends? Are your bookshelves full of books by white writers? Do you primarily watch TV shows and movies with white people in them? Are you doing business with, banking with, signing up for courses with, and hiring mostly white people? If so, ask yourself what you need to do to change the fact that you are centring whiteness.
2.) Listen to, read, and amplify the voices and wisdom of people of colour. Commit to reading only books written by people of colour for a year. Share at least one article each day on social media written by a person of colour. Sign up for courses with people of colour. Follow them on social media. If you have a public platform, share it regularly with voices that your audience needs to hear from.
3.) Buy from and amplify businesses owned by people of colour. You can do a lot of good by being more intentional about where you spend your money. Do your research and search out businesses owned by and run by people who look different from you. And then tell all of your friends about where you’re spending your money, not as a way of bragging about how socially conscious you are, but as a way of promoting these businesses and supporting their success.
4.) Consider the power of your vote. Do your research about the people you’re voting for. If you can, support people of colour running for political office (if they represent your political views). If the candidates in your neighbourhood are white, then at least talk to them about what they’re doing to address racism and white supremacy. Don’t just take their word for it – find out who they’re hiring, who they’re engaging in their campaigns, and who they’re doing business with for a better picture of how white their lens is.
5.) Talk to your racist neighbours, friends, family members, grocery store clerks, bus drivers, etc. Stand up for the people they dismiss. Challenge their attitudes. Invite them to multi-cultural events or lectures where they can expand their thinking. Don’t just ignore it because “they’re otherwise such kind people.” When you’re silent, you are complicit.
6.) Talk to the children in your life about racism and white supremacy. Point out the areas where they are benefiting from white privilege. Have hard conversations about news stories like Charlottesville. Model for them by letting them see you reading books by people of colour, having meaningful friendships with people of colour, voting for people of colour, and challenging your racist relatives. Help them develop strategies for addressing the racism they may be witnessing in their schools, sports teams, etc. (AND, when they grow up and start learning things you don’t know and listening to voices you haven’t heard, be willing to learn from them.)
7.) Research and send money to non-profits run by and working with communities that have suffered from oppression/colonization/conflict/etc. Non-profits that are run by white people, that have mostly white people on the board and on staff, etc. may be upholding white supremacy by not including the voices, wisdom, abilities, etc. of the people they say they’re serving. Note: I specifically said “send money”, because if you choose to send them the physical items YOU THINK they need, then you are taking their autonomy away. Unless they ask for specific items, let them make their own decisions by giving them money to spend as THEY see fit.
8.) Stop spiritual bypassing or other avoidance techniques and dare to peer into the shadow side of our culture. If you believe in “love and light” than dare to shine that light into the darkness of racism and white supremacy rather than trying to pretend that “we are all one race” or “I don’t see colour”. The fact that you have the option to avoid this kind of negativity is a sign of your privilege. Your spirituality is selfish if it lets you “rise above” the ugliness of the world.
9.) Learn to sit with discomfort. Do the personal work (mindfulness, therapy, coaching, etc.) that will build your resilience and help you deal with negative emotions in a more healthy way. If you are always running away from fear, shame, anxiety, etc. then you won’t have the courage to step into difficult conversations where you might be challenged for your white privilege, covert racism, etc. If you shut down every time someone expresses an opinion different from yours, then you’ll stay in your little bubble and not contribute to the change this world needs.
10.) Find places for conversations and meaningful action. Join an ally group that supports the causes of people of colour (eg. SURJ). Start a conversation circle where you can wrestle with the hard conversations. Seek out Facebook groups or other social media forums. DON’T rush in to do what YOU think needs to be done – instead, follow the leadership of the people most impacted by the issue and LISTEN.