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.
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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Sometimes grief comes like a runaway truck. You can see it careening down the highway toward you, but you don’t have enough time to get out of the way before it flattens you.
Sometimes it’s a slow moving train, and you’re stuck at the crossing, impatiently waiting for it to pass so that you can get on with your life.
Sometimes grief is a stealth bomber, dropping missiles from the sky and leaving you with an unfamiliar and sinister landscape that you don’t know how to navigate.
This Christmas, grief came to me like a sailboat – not disruptive or forceful, but with a strong enough wake to rearrange the pebbles on the shore.
It came in the dark while I was driving down the highway, on the way home from a full day of Christmas merriment at my brother’s house. It came on the same road where, six years earlier, I told my husband that, unless something changed, I couldn’t stay in the marriage any longer. It came while my daughters were peacefully sleeping in the van behind me. I was glad for the cover of darkness to hide the tears streaming down my face.
There is a unique grief that becomes part of your narrative when you’ve lost both parents and the partner you thought you’d spend the rest of your life with. It feels untethered – like there is nobody holding you to the ground anymore and you have to figure out how to do your own holding. It comes with a unique loneliness – a feeling of separateness – when you’ve lost those relationships at the first level of intimacy and the best that you now have is second-level intimacy. Those people care that you’re there and they love you dearly, but their eyes won’t light up when you walk into the room, and their hand won’t reach out to touch yours in a way that says either “you are my child” or “you are my beloved”.
I’d just spent the day with the people I adore (my siblings and their families), and my van was full of three girls whose love lights up my life, and yet I felt an undeniable sense of loneliness.
It was not unhealthy, this loneliness, nor was it even particularly painful. When it came, I felt no desire to banish it or even to resolve it in any hurry. There is no gaping hole in the centre of my heart; there is only a gentle gap that offers possibility for more fullness in the future.
I simply felt the longing in the loneliness and let it keep me company as I drove.
Longing is not something to be banished or feared. Longing is a friend, a messenger that points us in the direction of our hearts. Like a treasure map, it gives us clues that help us figure out where to dig.
Longing is what helps us make connections – with ourselves, with each other, with the sacred, and with the earth. We are meant for connection, to be in relationships that help us thrive and grow. If we didn’t ever feel longing, we would never seek each other out. We would live in isolation, never building communities, never taking the kinds of risks that result in intimacy, passion and aliveness.
Longing and love go hand in hand. Love grows in the world when we respond to our longing and reach out in connection and community.
My longing pointed me toward intimacy, touch, and deep soul connection.
There are many beautiful connections in my life, and for that I am grateful. But there’s a level of intimacy – both physical and emotional – that’s missing, and that is what my longing asks me to open my heart to.
There are other clues on this treasure map as well – clues that tell me that, in order to find the treasure of intimacy, more excavation will be required. I will need to continue to clear out the emotional clutter – old stories and attachments – that don’t serve me anymore. I will need to continue to heal the wounded parts of me that fear the deep vulnerability that comes with intimacy. I will need to soften the parts of me that keep me guarded and protected.
This past year has included a lot of excavation, a lot of decluttering, and a lot of dismantling of old stories. Now, at the end of it, I feel ready to sit with the empty spaces in my heart – the longing and hunger that comes when the old has been removed and the new has not yet come to fill its place. I feel ready to sit at the centre of the labyrinth – emptied of what I needed to release on the journey inward and ready to receive what has yet to arrive.
With this writing, I am suddenly aware of what my word for 2017 will be. My longing pointed the way to it.
My word for 2017 is intimacy.
What about you? Do you feel a deep longing right now? An ache in your heart that won’t go away? If so, what is it trying to teach you, what connection is it telling you to seek out?
Don’t chase it away and don’t fear it. Let it enter you, let it teach you, and let it point you toward the treasure you have yet to uncover.
If you’re interested in exploring your own longing and want to pick a word for 2017, A Soulful Year may be a useful resource.
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I am slowly, one breath at a time, finding my way back to equilibrium.
Two weeks ago, I was suddenly aware of how wobbly I’d become – spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Like a toddler on new legs, I was stumbling around, bumping into things (and people), and occasionally falling down. Also like a toddler, my emotions had become suddenly unregulated and unpredictable. I cried or got angry at the slightest provocation. And I was making mistakes I don’t normally make.
I knew it was time for a pause. I knew I needed to step away from my adult-sized obligations and simply let my wobbly toddler nature stumble along until she’d figured out how to walk again without harming herself.
As I mentioned in my last post, it’s been a big year, full of significant shifts in both my business and personal life. Mix all of the ingredients of my year – rapid (and unexpected) business growth and increased demand on my time and energy, the ending of a 22 year marriage, solo-parenting to three daughters navigating the path from adolescence to early adulthood, and a few fairly significant volunteer commitments (sponsoring Syrian refugees, hosting race relations conversations, and starting a women’s circle) – and you get a recipe for stress. The wobble is not unexpected.
Though I’m fairly consistent about incorporating self-care practices into my week, it was clear that I had reached a place where I needed to take more radical action.
I knew that if I didn’t put myself first for awhile, I would not be able to be of service to anyone else.
Here’s what I’ve been doing for the last two weeks:
- I reduced my screen time to almost nothing, stepping away from social media and emails in particular. I’d noticed that my wobbliness got worse when I spent too much time online, so I got off that treadmill. This was one of the healthiest things I could have done. It relieved a lot of the pressures of having to live up to other people’s expectations, meet other people’s needs, etc. It freed up a lot of space to focus on the healing and soul care I needed to do.
- I spent a lot of time outside. Nature heals me. It helps me feel grounded and connected again. I wandered in the woods, played at the beach, and sat for hours in my backyard around the fire. I hugged trees and talked to pelicans and frogs. Mother Earth revealed her Spring splendour to me and, when I paused to pay attention, she helped to heal my hurt and reminded me of my place in the nature of things.
- I got physical and sweaty. I rode my bike, went for long walks, and dug in my garden. With each footstep, each revolution of the bike pedals, and each handful of dirt, I worked through my anxiety, my stress, and my hurt. I let my body take over where my mind had gotten stuck. I alchemized some of the ache in my heart by letting my muscles take on the aching for awhile.
- I went to see a therapist. I’d become aware that some of my stress was related to some old patterns that I’d developed over years of dysfunctional communication in my marriage. I needed help letting go of those old patterns so that they wouldn’t have control over me anymore. After listening to my story, she gave me wise, holistic advice that I’m still processing and will probably write more about another time.
- I let people help me. So many of you helped me – with your kindness, your cards, your financial support, etc. – and there are not enough words to express my gratitude. Accepting help is a humbling and healthy thing, but it’s not something my ego let’s me do very often. When I accept help, though, I am reminded that I am not in this alone and I begin to see the world through a less self-absorbed lens.
- I played, slept, and did some deep relaxation. For the first few days, after I’d canceled my client sessions and gotten offline, I slept much more than usual. Then, when I felt rested, I found ways to play. Being barefoot in the sand at the beach helped a lot. I needed lightheartedness to remind me not to take the world quite so seriously. Thanks to a birthday gift from my daughters, I spent a whole day relaxing with a friend at Thermeaoutdoor spa.
- I prayed. When I get wobbly, as I did, it’s often a reminder to me that I am trying too hard to carry the world on my shoulders and not living from a place of trust. Reaching out to a Higher Power reminds me that I don’t have to do this all with my own strength. I have a powerful God/dess on my side, so why walk alone? Like a toddler who knows her parent is close by to catch her when she stumbles, I reached out my hand and let Her hold me. “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. S/he will not let your foot be moved; s/he who keeps you will not slumber.”
- I meditated. I’m not a very faithful meditator, but when I lose my equilibrium and my mind starts spinning in a hundred directions at once, I know that one of the only ways to find balance again is to plant my seat on my cushion, be still, and take deep breaths. It takes a lot of practice to still the racing mind, but slowly I’m getting back into the habit.
- I paid attention. The wobbliness was there to teach me what changes I needed to make in my life, so the first thing I did was slow down enough to pay attention. I paid attention to my body’s ache for more time away from the computer. I paid attention to what the persistent cough might be telling me about what was being stifled in my life. I paid attention to what triggered the tears and anger. I paid attention to how my breathing gets more shallow when I’m under stress and how I sometimes hold my breath. And I paid attention to how my needs were or were not being met. And then I responded accordingly.
- I cleared a lot of clutter. After years of neglect, our backyard had begun to resemble the wild kingdom. I began to tend it again, the same way I have been tending my heart – tearing out the seedlings that had grown in the wrong place, trimming back the hedges that were blocking the light, and pulling a lot of weeds that were smothering the beauty. At the end of hours of back-breaking labour, I put a circle of chairs around a small fire pit in the middle of the yard, under the canopy of ancient trees, and my daughters and I have enjoyed many hours of easy conversation around the fire.
- I let myself grieve. I reflected often on what David Whyte says in this short video clip… “One of the difficulties of leaving a relationship is not so much leaving the person themselves – because by that time, you’re ready to go. What’s difficult is leaving the dreams that you shared together. And you know that somehow, no matter who you meet in your life in the future, and no matter what species of happiness you will share with them, you will never ever share those particular dreams again, with that particular tonality and coloration. And so there’s a lovely and powerful form of grief there that is the ultimate in giving away, but making space for another form of re-imagination.” One night by the fire, after my daughters had made their way back into the house, I sat for a long time by the dying embers, grieving the flame that had died, grieving the shared dreams and the hopes that things would turn out differently. When the fire was gone, I got up and crawled into bed, alone and content.
- I dared to disappoint people in order to care for myself. This is a big one for me, as I have always struggled with a fear of letting people down. But I knew that I could not continue the way I was – trying to ensure everyone around me was happy so that my world would feel safe – and still be healthy and do good work. The words of Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s poem, The Invitation, kept going through my mind… “I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.”
Now, as I make my way back to my work and begin to consider what work calls me next, I am being more intentional about how I step back in. I am working on a deeper understanding of what it means for me to be “openhearted with boundaries”. I am trying to do a better job of managing people’s expectations (ie. if you don’t get a response from an email, please wait a few days). I’m looking after what my body tells me I need. I’m shifting the way I show up in relationships. I am being more careful to protect my energy, my health, and my heart.
I believe that, when I “put on my own oxygen mask first”, I’ll be better able to care for the people around me, and my work will come from a place of abundance rather than depletion.
I also believe that, once in awhile, it’s valuable to return to the legs and heart of a toddler, stumbling around trying to find balance, giggling at things that surprise us, crying whenever our emotions overwhelm us, reaching out to a benevolent grown-up for support when we need it, and exploring the delights of the world with unguarded eyes.
I turned fifty in the middle of my time away. Fifty is a good age to become a toddler again. It’s good to be standing on new legs as I enter the second half of my life.
In honour of my new toddler view of the world, I am currently perched about six feet above the ground in a tree in my backyard. There’s a great spot, in a tree that must be at least a hundred years old, where three massive limbs separate and create a natural nook, that I always thought would be a perfect place for a treehouse. I haven’t built anything permanent yet, but today, on a whim, I carried a ladder and some old couch cushions to the backyard to make myself a makeshift little nest where I can sit and hide and get close to the birds and the squirrels.
How about you? Are you wobbling around on toddler legs? Is it time for you to pause for radical self-care and perspective shift? Is it time to say no for awhile so that you can say a bigger YES to the world that awaits?
If you’re telling yourself that “it sure would be nice, but there’s no way I could do that”, you might want to take a look at your excuses and see if they are true or if they are wrapped up in a story about how the world simply can’t function without you at the helm. You may not be able to step away in the way that I did (I understand the demands of small children and full-time jobs), but you can find your own version that works within your current reality.
p.s. If you need some help finding your balance again, or working through the stories that keep you stuck in old patterns, perhaps I can help. I’m taking on a few new coaching clients.
I wrote a very personal post recently for The Helpers’ Circle about how much I struggle with The Fear of Letting People Down (and how I’ve learned to talk myself out of it). Here’s a quote from that post…
“My Fear of Letting People Down started at a young age. I became very practiced at being The Good Girl, the one who didn’t show her anger, who took responsibility for her work and did it well, who didn’t rock the boat and who could be depended on at all costs. I needed people to be happy with me – to notice my good work and to not get angry. When people were pleased with me and nobody was angry, my world felt safe.”
After writing it, I was thinking about how many things get in the way of our quest for authenticity – fear, shame, duty, etc.. In almost every conversation I have, whether in coaching sessions or workshops, I hear a deep longing for greater authenticity, and almost always a deep sadness that the path to authenticity seems so treacherous and never-ending. And the fear always keeps us company… the fear of letting people down, the fear of embarrassing ourselves, the fear of rejection, the fear of judgement, the fear of falling flat on our faces, and the fear of being alone.
We want to be real. We want to be true to ourselves. We want to be bold in being who we truly are. And yet… so much gets in the way that sometimes it seems impossible. There are bills to pay, people to please, rules to follow, wounds to protect, and shame to hide.
Why is that the case? Why have we found ourselves in a culture that is so hell-bent on making people live inauthentic lives?
I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer to that question. It’s probably a nature+nurture thing. At least some of it can be connected to the materialistic lifestyles we’ve adopted – a function of living in a production-oriented, economy-driven world. Shiny things are the most desirable, and so we make ourselves more shiny.
But there’s also something else, and it’s about love.
Not long after I wrote the piece for The Helpers’ Circle, I interviewed my friend Lianne Raymond (who knows a great deal about psychology and child development) for one of the monthly interviews I’m sharing in the circle and Lianne said something quite profound that cracked open something new for me in this regard.
“Given a choice between authenticity and love, a child will always choose love.”
Wow. She’s right! That’s where it all begins! From the very first time we open our eyes and seek out our mothers’ smiles, our primary quest is for love. Love is the foundation – the ground we learn to walk on. From the moment we slipped out of the womb (and before), we needed it nearly as much as we needed the air we breathed. We did everything we could to get that love, even if it meant gradually giving up pieces of ourselves to please the person whose love we sought.
A world in which we were loved is a world in which we are safe.
Even good parents and guardians can unintentionally attach behaviour to love. I remember my own mother (who did so many things right) used to say things like “if you love me, you’ll wash the dishes”. And though I haven’t used those same words, I know there are moments I unintentionally make it clear to my daughters that it’s easier to love them when I see certain behaviour. We are all flawed in this effort to love each other.
Whether it was to please our parents, our teachers, or our peers, we quickly learned, as children, what behaviour brought us the most love and what behaviour resulted in that love being withheld. We adapted, we conformed, and we sacrificed. Some of us never really got the love we were seeking, and so the world became a very unsafe place. We didn’t know how to behave because nothing we did brought us the love we so badly needed.
Somewhere along the way, we forgot what it meant to be real. We only knew what pleased or displeased the people whose affections we craved. And some of us, raised in volatile or unstable environments, knew how to run for cover or to morph ourselves into whatever shapes would best protect us.
Then one day we grew up and didn’t recognize ourselves anymore. We saw only strangers looking back in the mirror at us. We realized that, instead of being authentic, we had become composites of all of the behaviours that other people expected of us.
To reveal the real work of art, hidden under the collage of other people’s expectations, takes a lot of courageous effort. Every layer we peel away reveals a tenderness, a shame, a wound. Every step we take to recovering our authenticity puts us at risk. We may be shamed for it, we may be rejected, we may not be loved. The little child in us shrieks “YOU CAN’T DO THAT! You’re breaking the rules! You need to be loved! You need to be safe!”
But “safe” begins to feel like “stuck” and we long for more. We long for truth. We long for freedom. We long for ourselves.
Gradually, those of us who finally decide that authenticity is the only way we can truly live, realize that we have no choice but to break the rules. We have no choice but to risk being unloved. We have no choice but to give up the safety we worked so hard to find.
After much agony, fear, and faltering, those of us who find the courage come back to ourselves. Many of us lose people along the way – we lose those people who only know how to love us when we behave in a certain way. But we find other people. We find people who are on similar paths to authenticity and we realize that we can cobble together new families and new communities that hold space for us no matter how we behave.
Finally, we find a new kind of safety – one that is rooted in real love, not conditional love – and in that place of safety, we unfurl into whoever we are meant to be.
It may never be perfect (even now I sometimes find myself hiding parts of myself from those whose love I value most because I don’t want them to reject me), but it feels a little closer to being Real.
* * * * * *
p.s. To see the interview with Lianne or to read the post I mentioned, about The Fear of Letting People Down, you’ll have to become part of The Helpers’ Circle.
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In one of my favourite childhood photos, I’m sitting on the couch with a row of dolls lined up on my lap. Unfortunately, that photo was lost when my mom moved away from the farm after dad died, so it exists only in my memory now. The way my memory serves me, though, each of those dolls has a different skin colour, hair colour, and/or cultural attire. Only one of those dolls has blonde hair and blue eyes like me.
That’s the way I like to think of myself – from a young age choosing to surround myself with difference, with diversity. It’s not always true (in much of my life I have been surrounded by too much sameness), but it’s my ideal image of myself.
I thought of that photo recently when a viral video depicted two young white girls reacting in disappointment and disgust when they received black dolls as Christmas gifts. What’s most disturbing about that video is the way the adults giggle about and invite their reaction and the very fact that some adult thought it was funny enough to share online. Clearly their behaviour is a learned behaviour. Raised in another environment, those girls would likely have been delighted by the gift.
I have been disturbed lately by sameness and the way those girls’ actions too closely reflect our own. I see it in my own life and I see it in the world around me. We gravitate toward what is comfortable and safe, what looks and sounds like us, and so we end up in places, in conversations, and in friendships where there is a clear insider and a clear outsider. In doing so, we marginalize the people who don’t fit in. Without even knowing it, we toss aside the black dolls just as those young girls did.
Most of us are good people, so we don’t do it intentionally, but good people make mistakes when we don’t pay attention. Good people make mistakes when we see the world only through our own lenses.
Marginalized people get hurt by a lot of good people who “didn’t mean to hurt anyone”.
Let me be perfectly clear that I include myself in this critique. I like to be comfortable as much as the next person, and so I too often find myself in places and in relationships where the people in the room largely fall into the same racial, gender, and socio-economic categories as I do.
But we miss out on SO MUCH when we don’t listen to the voices of people who are different from us. We miss out on SO MUCH when we don’t challenge our own comfort levels and dare to stretch ourselves beyond what feels safe. We miss out on SO MUCH when we toss aside the beautiful black dolls.
When everyone in the room looks the same, someone’s left outside. Sometimes that’s okay (when we’re at a family gathering, or when we’ve come together for healing or empowerment, for example), but often it’s not.
Over the festive season, I participated in two spiritual gatherings. The first one (which I’ve written about before) was a small gathering in a hospital sanctuary, where people of diverse faiths each lit a candle and talked about what light means in their spiritual tradition. At that one, the room was full of diversity of every kind. Not only were there at least nine faith groups represented in those who lit candles (most of whom were people of colour from various parts of the world), but there were hospital patients in wheelchairs and people of all walks of life, with varying degrees of health, socio-economic status, and physical ability.
I left that gathering feeling energized and connected to God/dess.
The other gathering I attended was on Christmas Eve, in Florida where my family was vacationing. This was a traditional Christian service that was fairly similar to what I grew up with. Though the setting was very different (this was a large posh church with theatre-style seating, while I grew up in a tiny and poor country church with old wooden pews), the language was largely the same. There was some comfort in that sameness – I knew the Christmas carols and had heard the Christmas story hundreds of times. It was a perfectly lovely service, with great singing and good story-telling on the pastor’s part. One story he shared was quite moving – about how a large endowment to the church had been split up among church-goers who were told to go out and do some act of kindness in the community.
Unlike the gathering in the hospital sanctuary, there was very little diversity in the room. In a room filled with more than a thousand people, I saw only three people of colour and could see evidence of very little socio-economic diversity. Among the visible leadership, there was even less diversity. The only people who spoke or served communion were older white men. Either you received God’s teachings and God’s body and blood from an older white man, or you didn’t receive it at all.
I left that gathering feeling weary and disconnected from God/dess.
I have no doubt that the church-goers and their leaders are good people doing good work in their community. They don’t mean to exclude anyone, and there’s a good chance they have well-meaning conversations about how to increase their diversity and how to reach out to people who are different from them. I know many good people like them, and in many ways, I am one of them – good people trying to do good things.
But good people hurt other people by living their good, comfortable lives and ignoring their own privilege and narrow views of the world.
And this is not a domain that’s exclusive to a conservative Christian church by any means. It happens in all kinds of settings.
Recently I was looking at an online advertisement for a women’s leadership summit – the kind of event I’d normally be drawn to, where leadership is seen through a feminine lens and there’s a comfort level with talk of the feminine divine and women’s power. But there was something about it that left me feeling sad, and I realized it was because of the sameness of the images on the speakers’ list. All of them were white women between the ages of 30 and 50 who looked like they’d stepped out of the pages of a yoga magazine.
Just what the patriarchy has for so long done to them, the organizers of this online summer were, (inadvertently of course) doing to others – marginalizing the voices of those who don’t fit. I’m sure these women would have all been horrified by the video of the young white girls tossing aside the black dolls, but in a way, the result was the same.
Sameness. Comfort. Marginalization. Barriers. Disconnection.
What do we do about it? That’s a big conversation and it needs the voices of many people who see the world differently from me.
I can only offer my own perspective from where I stand.
We start by noticing. We start by paying attention – looking around the room to see who’s sitting with us, checking our social media feed to see who we’re conversing with, noticing the books we read and the voices we listen to, paying attention to who has a voice at our gatherings. Because if we’re not listening to the stories of people who are different, if we’re not sitting and having conversations with them, we’ll always be stuck in this same place.
I loved Gloria Steinem’s recent book, My Life on the Road, largely because she shares so many stories about how she was influenced and changed by the people she met on the road. Much of her wisdom came not from people who look like her, but from black people, indigenous people, bikers, and farmers. She is the woman she is today because all of these people’s stories have been woven into her own.
I’m here to challenge us all to live more like that. Let’s be the kind of people who listen to stories and wisdom of people who look, think, and live differently from us. Let’s read books from other parts of the world and written by people of other races and classes. Let’s have more conversations with people who don’t share our political views or our socio-economic status.
I’ve created a list of books written by people who’ve lead very different lives from mine that I want to read and I’m working my way through them. Some I’ve read recently and recommend are Wab Kinew’s The Reason You Walk, Rosanna Deerchild’s Calling Down the Sky, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. I encourage you to build your own list.
I’ve also signed up for a course called “How to Embrace Diversity to Improve your Business” being offered by Desiree Adaway and Ericka Hines. Quite frankly, there is still too much sameness in the kind of clientele I attract and I want to see what I can do to change that. I know that Desiree and Ericka will challenge me and hold me accountable, and though it may be uncomfortable sometimes, I’ll do my best to stretch myself.
What else can we do to shift the status quo? Good people, I look forward to hearing from you.