At the smallest level, you are the individual at the centre (with your own system existing within your body). Then you are part of a number of microsystems (your family, school, peer groups, local church, etc.). Next is the mesosystem (which weaves together the relations between microsystems and exosystem – for example, the relations between your family members and their coworkers). Then the exosystem (your neighbours, friends of family, mass media, government agencies, social welfare systems, social media, etc.). Then the macrosystem (attitudes and ideologies of the culture, ethnicity, geographic location, socioeconomic status, etc.). Finally, the chronosystem holds all of the experiences of a lifetime (environmental events, major life transitions, and historical events).
Let’s expand the analysis of the person who’s a member of a local church. Not only is it insufficient to examine that person separate from the church that they’re a part of, it is also insufficient to examine that church separate from the broader systems that it is part of. That local church is likely part of a denomination that shapes the traditions, historical relevance, ideologies, beliefs, and biases of that church. That denomination may have multiple levels of influence, from the localized grouping of churches, up to the global governance structure. It is also embedded within a religion that informs, among other things, what version of God is worshipped and how members of that religion interact with people of other religions. And then there is the neighbourhood, city, country, and region of the world that the local church is located in – all of these things also have influence, meaning that a local church in one country won’t look the same as a local church in another country even if they’re in the same denomination.
At an even broader scale, that local church (and, by extension, each member of the church), is being influenced by what’s at the macrosystems level. This is where things like colonization, patriarchy, white supremacy, classism, racism, and capitalism come into play. A church rooted in the patriarchy, for example, will likely still be led by a man, and where white supremacy is an issue, that man will likely be white. And, here in North America in particular, no church is completely free of the colonization that built our countries.
ALL of these systems are at play in that one individual who is a member of that one local church, and so that person cannot be fully witnessed without recognizing what’s at play. Even when that person leaves that church, the systems will still be at play, especially if the person is unconscious of the way that they’ve been influenced while part of that church. (Also at play will be all of the other systems that individual is part of – family systems, community systems, work systems, etc.)
Systems usually evolve as a way to organize us. A system without some form of organization won’t be able to sustain itself or serve the purpose it’s meant for, and so, if we value a system and find meaning in it, we organize it. Imagine, for example, a school that has no sense of order – nobody is responsible for doing the teaching or clean up and students are allowed to do whatever they please. That’s not education, it’s anarchy. (Some would suggest that it would eventually become a self-organizing system, if the desire for education is great enough.)
The problem is that what organizes us often begins to control us. When we become too rigid to allow a system to evolve, when we put the value of the system above the value of the individuals in that system, and when we embed a measurement of worthiness into a system (what Isabel Wilkerson refers to as Caste), then that system is no longer just organizing us, it’s controlling and measuring us. That’s when we end up with the dominance and oppression of systems like colonization.
Then, when a system begins to control people using dominance and oppression, that system begins to cause trauma in its people. A system that causes trauma becomes a system full of traumatized people and (because what happens at the micro level is also what happens at the macro level) it is therefore a traumatized system. Once you have a traumatized system, it becomes particularly destructive and particularly difficult to change. That’s when you see the levels of brokenness that have been showing up in the world – like climate change, and what’s currently happening in the Ukraine.
A traumatized system (just like a traumatized individual) needs people that can hold space for it while it heals. But the challenge is that EVERYBODY in that system has become traumatized and so it’s difficult to step outside of the system enough to help it with its healing. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of trauma.
I am not without hope, though. I have personally witnessed many people, in recent years, who are waking up to this trauma enough so that they can heal it in themselves, and then move themselves far enough outside of the traumatized system so that they can offer healing back to that system and the people in it. These people are learning to work with each other, with the natural world, and with whatever form of spirituality might support them, so that they can work to heal a broken world.
In the Berkana Institute’s Two Loops Model (below), we’re given a hint about what happens when people begin to move away from a traumatized system. The upper loop represents the dominant system, which was once vibrant and alive and served a purpose (the top of the loop). At some point, though, a system’s purpose is fulfilled, and then it needs to complete its cycle so that it can die and make space for a new system. Lots of people resist that system’s death, because it keeps them safe, but some people recognize that the system needs to die and they step away from that system. If those people were traumatized by the dominant system, they must do healing work or they will continue to perpetuate the same trauma that was embedded in the system. As they heal, their imagination becomes reawakened and they become innovators who begin to imagine the birth of something that can replace the dying system. That’s what the bottom loop is for – it represents the evolution of the new system.
In addition to the innovators, there is also a role for hospice workers – those who are willing to support the hospice work of the dying system. Once the old system has been released, the hospice workers join the innovators.
That’s why I’ve created my new course, Know Yourself, Free Yourself. I want to support those people who are waking up – those who are doing their healing so that they can become hospice workers or innovators (or both). I want to help them see the systems more clearly. I want to walk alongside them as they examine their lineage, trauma, beliefs, biases, and relationship patterns. I want to help them imagine themselves as whole people, apart from the systems that measure and control them. I want us to imagine collective liberation and generative love. I want us to know community, connection, and joy. I want us to set our imaginations free so that we can dream our way into new ways of being.
I hope that you will join me in this. It feels really, really important, and perhaps even urgent. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve created three levels for the registration fee – because we want this program to welcome into the circle people from around the world and from across the socioeconomic spectrum.
Friends, can I level with you for a moment? I’m feeling sad this week… and tender, with my emotions very near the surface. If you dare to ask me, when I’m having a tender moment, how I’m doing with my nearly-empty house, I might just drench your shoulder with tears.
Last week I got home from the second of two long trips to move daughters to opposite ends of this vast country that I live at the centre of. To suddenly, after twenty-five years of parenting my daughters in my home and holding them close (six of those years as a single parent), have the oldest and youngest simultaneously move so far away from me, especially eighteen months into a pandemic when we’ve spent SO much time together… well… it’s a LOT.
I’m okay with the sadness, though. I know how to hold it and welcome it like a gentle friend. I know how to let it pass through me and remind me of all of the ways I have loved and been loved. It’s all a part of this liminal space that I am now in, learning how to be a different kind of mom, and I know that it’s better to feel what I need to feel than to try to numb or bypass those feelings.
What’s harder to hold right now, though, is what is being added on top of the sadness this week on my return to work… discouragement… and that’s what this post is largely about. (Truthfully, I long to write more about this transition I’m in… and I will… but there are other things I need to speak of first.)
This week when I came back to work, I discovered that registration for our programs is slower than it’s ever been and that has me feeling discouraged and sad and… well, weary. Instead of doing the writing that I long to do, I have to try to cram my brain into marketing mode. Few things drain my energy more than marketing mode. I don’t really have any clue how to switch from “processing a big transition” into “selling seats in programs”, so instead, I’m going to do what I’m good at – be honest with you about what’s going on.
I suspect that part of the reason for our low numbers is this general malaise we’re all feeling after so many months of this pandemic (it was referred to as “pandemic flux syndrome” in a recent Washington Post article), plus a weariness from having to do so much of our connecting on Zoom. But I think there are also other things going on and those are the things I’m ruminating about this week as I contemplate what’s the “next right thing” in getting the word out.
There are some things that I want to keep stubbornly believing but that keep getting tested in moments like these when the work of running a meaningful small business feels burdensome.
1. I want to keep believing that a leader can rest and not suffer any consequences from that rest. (I want to believe we ALL can rest, for that matter.) I took two months of sabbatical this summer, knowing how badly I needed a rest after the grind of launching a book, building a new business, creating and running multiple programs, parenting three daughters, supporting one of those daughters through complex and scary health challenges – all in the middle of a pandemic. It wasn’t a great time to be away from work, given the fact that it’s when we most need to be selling seats in our programs, but I knew I’d crash and burn if I didn’t tend to myself. (And then what good would I be to the people who sign up for those programs?) I created a lot of content before I left and uploaded it so that it would still get to people’s inboxes and social media feeds while I was away. I hoped that that was enough to still attract people to the programs, but… sales went down… possibly because I wasn’t visible and accessible and “in the grind” of making sales (and because social media algorithms don’t put unpaid content in front of many eyes unless it generates a lot of activity). That’s discouraging, because I don’t believe anybody should be forced to be available ALL the time just to make enough money to pay the bills. That’s capitalism at its cruelest and most exhausting.
2. I want to keep believing that collaborative leadership is better than the cult of personality. Last year, I very intentionally took on a business partner, created the Centre for Holding Space, and hired an excellent team of co-teachers, because I believe in collaborative leadership and I believe that the best way for this work to be held is in community. Krista and our team members bring wisdom, ideas, energy, gifts and capacity to this work that enrich it and make it much more beautiful than what comes from me alone. However… we’ve had a harder time selling our programs than I did when I sold from my own platform and was the solitary teacher. On one hand, I get that – I’m a known personality and most people came to this work through me and my writing and teaching, so they trust it more when I am at the helm. But… it also feels like there is a misplaced desire to make me into the guru and for me to have all of the wisdom that people need (which feels like a cultural thing, especially in our western culture with its celebrity-worship). There’s a lot of projection and individualism and disempowerment (i.e. people giving their power over to a leader) baked into that and it saddens and troubles me. (I wrote about that in this post about why people start cults.) I am better when my work is rooted in community than when it’s rooted in ego, and I want to keep believing that’s the right way to go. (Note: I am still very present in the programs and you’ll get lots of opportunities to be in conversation with me.)
3. I want to keep believing that meaningful content is more valuable than gimmicky marketing. I am deeply committed to putting meaningful content into the world, and I keep believing THAT is what will draw the right people to this work (and so far, it mostly has). I refuse to use manipulative marketing language and I will not inundate people with endless emails or try to convince them to buy things they can’t afford. I stand by those values and anyone who’s come to me for coaching or advice on building a business will hear me say what I used to tell my students when I taught public relations courses at university… “The two most important things are to tell good stories and build good relationships.” And yet… sometimes I watch the gimmicky, manipulative marketing tactics fill programs that cost far more than ours and… well, I get discouraged and sad. (For example, marketers would tell me that instead of this post, I should be sending out posts that signal scarcity and trigger your desire to not be left behind – to let you know there are only limited spots available for a limited time and your life will be meaningless if you don’t join, blah, blah, blah. Sadly, much of that plays on our abandonment trauma, and I just won’t do it.)
4. I want to keep believing that work can be meaningful and life-giving AND sustain people financially. And I want to believe in a shared, equitable economy, not one built on greed. I have never had an interest in being wealthy or being an empire-builder. If I did, I’d still be selling programs on my own and pouring my energy into making a name for myself instead of trying to build the Centre for Holding Space. I do, however, believe that meaningful work CAN provide well for the people who create it and contribute to it so that they don’t have to work so hard in our soul-crushing economic systems. I believe it so much that I’ve been working hard to build something beautiful that will not only sustain me and my family, but also sustain Krista and her family and give meaningful well-paid work to our team. This past year has been a struggle, however, as Krista and I have had to pay for a lot of outside support to build the business and it’s meant that Krista has made almost no money from the Centre and I have made less than I have in several years. That saddens me, a lot (especially the part about Krista, because I love her so much and want her to be well-paid).
5. I want to keep believing that people are ready for depth and not just “self-help pablum”. On one of our long driving days last week, my daughter and I listened to an audiobook that we thought was a memoir and it turned out to be “self-help pablum”. In other words, it was easily digestible and provided enough nutrients for someone who’s in their infancy in personal development, but lacked depth, nuance and sustenance for anyone further along in their development. I don’t want to denigrate it, because I think it might be the right kind of thing for someone who’s just awakening to a longing for a different kind of life, but I get discouraged about how much of what is available still fits into that category and how often people think that’s enough. This particular influencer has ten times as many followers on social media as I do, and there are many, many others just like her, because that’s what sells and gets attention. It’s a low-risk kind of personal development path because it doesn’t ask you to disrupt anything or see the ways our systems are flawed. It doesn’t expect you to witness your own privilege, challenge your biases, or stand up to oppressive systems. But…I want to keep believing that people are ready for more, and I’ll stay devoted to that belief because I see that readiness in all of the people who show up for our programs.
6. I want to keep believing that holding space is one of the most important skills people need right now. Like it or not, we are in a time of disruption, unrest and change and we need new skills to meet the challenges we face. In this collective liminal space when so much of our lives are being unsettled by the pandemic, climate change, racism (and all of the “-isms”), political upheaval, etc., we need to learn how to practice sitting with discomfort, how to hold space for ourselves when there is disruption, how to witness our own biases without being buried in shame, how to support each other in times of grief and trauma, and how to be in community even in the darkest of times. When things get hard and complicated, we need less individualism and more community, less reactivity and more co-regulation, less grind and more rest, less hero-leadership and more host-leadership, less competition and more collaboration. We need to know how to hold grief and how to process fear. We need to know how to walk alongside people who are in liminal space. We need to know how to conscientiously disrupt the patterns that no longer serve us. These are all things that we focus on in our programs, and, more than ever, I believe this is what we need to learn, together.
Despite my discouragement in this moment, I have not lost hope or passion for this work. This too, shall pass. (If I gave up easily, I wouldn’t have made it through my first year of self-employment.) I will keep showing up for it, because I believe in it wholeheartedly, and I know that many of you will keep showing up for it too. I am deeply grateful for all of you who join me in this quest for a better way to be in deep connection with ourselves, with each other, and with Mystery.
Let us carry on, because it is the right thing to do.
I didn’t rake the leaves off the lawn this Fall. My climate activist daughter regularly sends me articles about how the dead leaves create biodiversity in the backyard, serving as places for insects (including pollinators) to hibernate, and then, in the Spring, bringing more birds and flowers to the yard. As for the leaves I needed to clean off the patio and walkway – I built a backyard composter where they can rot into food for the soil.
The neighbours on both sides of my yard raked their leaves, so there’s a clear line between their property and mine – crunchy leaves on one side, grass on the other.
As much as I believe in more healthy symbiosis with the natural world, I will admit I struggled with the decision not to rake. Nobody wants to be THAT neighbour – the one whose cluttered yard is talked about in whispered tones because of the way it brings the property values down. Though I don’t need it to be pristine, I wanted it to be at least as orderly as the neighbours’. (Somebody in our neighbourhood once gave their next-door-neighbour $500 to temporarily clean the clutter from the yard while their house was up for sale.)
I recognize how vain this makes me sound – that I would make decisions that could negatively impact the environment based on what the neighbours think. But it’s the truth, isn’t it? Even when we pretend we’re not paying attention to our neighbours, friends, and family, we’re always at least somewhat aware of the ways that we stand out, the ways we’re seen as odd, and the ways we’re judged for not having our lives together. We do it in our neighbourhoods, at our schools and workplaces, and online. We don’t really grow out of our childhood need to fit in.
But change doesn’t happen until someone is willing to be the outlier, and so I’ll leave my leaves and if they ask about it, I’ll tell them about the insects and the birds. And if my leaves blow onto their lawns, I’ll offer to rake them back onto mine.
This decision, while a minor one in the grand scheme of things, is making me think about the many ways that we choose to hide our messes so that the neighbours don’t see them and so that we conform to the (often unspoken) collective norms and expectations of the places where we live and work. Even if our lives are messy behind closed doors, we want to project the appearance of having shiny, happy, orderly lives.
It’s a cultural thing (especially in wealthier western countries), it’s a neighbourhood thing (especially in the suburbs), and it’s a capitalist thing (especially among those who want others to see that they have the kind of success that is valued within capitalism). In an era of social media, it’s even more prevalent, because we are always peeking into the virtual windows of other people’s curated lives. (Be honest – how often have you moved things out of the frame before you’ve taken a photo to post on social media? The pressure is real, isn’t it?)
On an interview for a parenting podcast, recently, the interviewer asked me to speculate on why, when change is such a constant in our lives, so few of us are truly equipped to handle change in our lives. My answer was some version of this… “Change comes with disruption and messiness. And we have been led to believe, in our culture, that truly successful lives are those without the messiness. When the mess shows up, and we don’t have control over it, we assume we must be doing something wrong.”
We are always comparing our own lives to the curated versions of other people’s lives. If they don’t show their messes, we assume that they don’t HAVE messes. But they do. We all do. Life is messy. We break things. We spill things. We hurt people. We get hurt. We get overwhelmed and incapable of the simplest tasks. We get triggered back to the less mature versions of ourselves. We get resentful of our kids who NEVER clean up after themselves. We get angry with ourselves because “WHY didn’t we teach our kids better?!” We get depressed. We get anxious. We fumble. We fail. ALL OF US.
What if we showed more of that messiness? What if we divested ourselves of the toxic values systems of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy and we stopped trying to perform to some ridiculous and unreachable standards of perfection? What if we let our bulges spill out over our jeans, left our leaves on the lawn to make happy homes for the critters, left the dirty dishes in the sink when we’re taking photos to share on Instagram, and let people know when it feels like the world is crushing us? What if we agreed to no longer play by the rules that place value on curated lives? What if we invited people into our homes even when we haven’t dusted the furniture in weeks (and then didn’t apologize)? What if we wrote letters to all of the marketers who try to tell us our lives aren’t good enough and we told them we’ll never buy anything from anyone who markets from that kind of manipulative, scarcity mindset?
Maybe then we’d nap more, play more, eat more, and laugh more. Maybe then we’d crawl around on our hands and knees and stare at the pretty bugs gathering under our scattered leaves. Maybe then we’d lean into new ways of being in relationship, where value is placed on presence and not perfection. Maybe then we’d be less hard on ourselves and we’d smile at ourselves when we look in the mirror. Maybe then we’d wake up and realize how much we’ve been manipulated into the kind of shame and self-judgement that keeps us from being real.
People often ask me why it’s so hard to hold space for other people when they’re going through the mess of the liminal space, and I usually say “When you can become more comfortable with your own mess, then you can become more comfortable with other people’s messes. When you stop seeing yourself as someone who needs to be fixed, then you’ll stop trying to fix other people. And when you stop believing that you only have value when you’re DOING something productive and meaningful, then you’ll become better practiced at simply BEING with another person.”
There is a LOT of value in being the kind of friend who is unphased by the mess, who can sit with someone and deeply listen, seeing through to their heart without being distracted by the things that are out of order. There is a LOT of value in being silent when someone simply needs a listening ear and not advice. There is a LOT of value in your presence and your acceptance and your love. And yet… so often we overlook that value and only focus on the value of that which feels more active, productive, and “useful”.
Another question I’ve been asked a few times on interviews recently, and which seems related, is “What about cancel culture? Can we truly have deep and meaningful conversations, and wade into conflict (especially online), when we’re all afraid of saying the wrong thing and being canceled?” Here are my thoughts on cancel culture… It wouldn’t exist if we didn’t live in a culture rooted in capitalism and patriarchy that has placed so much value on perfectionism, ease, order, and power. If we hadn’t developed this skewed belief system that, with the right work ethics, the right thoughts, the right courses, the right purchases, and the right intentions, we can all have perfect, easy lives, we wouldn’t be at risk of being ‘canceled’.
If we all showed our messes more regularly, then we wouldn’t have these ridiculous and unattainable standards of perfection that lead to inevitable failure. If we were open and honest about our fumbling and failure, took responsibility for the harm we’ve done, made amends, and didn’t have so much fear of having our messes exposed, then we would no longer be at risk of being torn off the hollow pedestals that were never meant to hold our weight in the first place.
Take J.K. Rowling, for example – I believe that if she had truly listened, early on when she was first challenged about trans rights, and that she’d been willing to fumble in her attempts to understand what she was being challenged with (and make necessary repairs), then I don’t think there would have been so many people ready to tear her down. We tear down those who don’t live up to our expectations of perfection – expectations that have been skewed by our celebrity-worshiping, humanity devaluing culture. We also tear down those who don’t take responsibility for messing up.
We are not meant to be perfect people. None of us are – not even the celebrities our culture elevates to ridiculous heights. We’ve been manipulated into striving for that perfection, believing it’s attainable, idolizing it when we see glimpses of it in others, and spending more and more of our time and money trying to at least create the illusion that we are close to it.
It’s all a lie. It’s a messed-up fairytale that you’ve been taught since childhood so that you’ll spend more of your money on useless things and abdicate your power to those you believe have greater value than you do.
It’s time to divest of those belief systems and the cultural systems that prop them up. It’s time to live more honest and messy lives. It’s time to stop trying to fix ourselves and other people. It’s time to stop spending our money on things that don’t truly bring us joy. It’s time to stop changing our bodies to meet some ridiculous standards of beauty.
It’s time to let our leaves rot so that they can nourish new life.
If you’d like to learn more about how to live with the messiness of life and hold space for yourself and others in the midst of it, there is still time to sign up for the Holding Space Foundation Program that starts next week.