Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Self-Denigration is Not the Way...How to Break the Cycle?

A new question landed in my belly this past weekend, as I Zoomed, walked, listened, spoke, listened some more in a newly forming community of leaders called Fire & Water Leadership/Rites of Passage with Quanita Roberson and Tenneson Woolf. The seed of the question was planted in 2014-2015, when I served on a diverse leadership team for a cohort of faculty in theological/religious-studies departments, in institutions of higher (theological) education. I will eventually ask the question, which is clearly for white people, but first, I want to set it up within the stories out of which it now arises…

I landed in the leadership role in 2014-2015 with a huge sense of imposter-syndrome, in senses both young and white. It was a colloquy aimed to help mid-career faculty renew and re-envision their callings through collegiality and creativity. Given my own way in the world, I was a natural at holding space for this kind of mission. But I could have applied to be a participant in the colloquy. I saw myself as peer first. The weighty elder in my past had asked me to join the leadership team, so of course I said yes. I trust him, and learn from him so deeply. I still felt young and unschooled from Day One. Given my social-and-institutional location, I was less ‘cutting edge’ or ‘status-visible’ for status-aware higher education faculty. Not surprisingly, the collection of wounds in the room soon became entangled, and one of the other leaders on the team schooled me about a way I had spoken in a group meeting. I had wanted to weave some wisdom she had made earlier in the leadership team meeting into the whole discussion, but didn’t want to ‘steal it’ by saying it in my own voice. I invited her to speak, and her wound experienced it as (however she experienced it). Her reaction was angry, direct-attack of me in public. I felt humiliated, ashamed. Today, I can see it as inevitable for who she and I are in this system. And I can see her action as (over?)-reactive, a lashing out from her own wound-places. The leadership team ruptured and never quite recovered, to be honest, though I finally made my peace by receiving her as a painful spiritual teacher, doing to me what all had been done to her for longer than I was alive. In a base sense, it was some of the easiest money I earned: from that point on, I showed up and said nothing. For 12 months.

I remember watching the dynamics unfold, true to higher education norms and the conceptually violent practices higher ed faculty learn in order to succeed, or don’t learn and get fired or leave. The gift of this entire experience for me was seeing writ large how broken higher education is for the things I value today. Even when the room was diverse, even when the diverse voices had the power and center-of-gravity, the same relational-communal wreckage occurs because it’s higher education, built on plantation logic with an aim of forming the white self-sufficient man (Willie Jennings, After Whiteness). One of the norms you learn early on, or leave because you didn’t is proportionate response. When one faculty challenges another, you better meet him/her/them with proportionate response on topic and in conceptual force. Even a perceived ‘tie’ in the argument will save face, your political capital. Submission or being wrong loses face, loses political capital. (also President Bartlett, The West Wing, season 1, episode 3).

A new norm began in earnest for the group after my own ‘schooling’: white women denigrating themselves before joining into a conversation, so to be heard, so to speak. There’s very little that unnerves an academic than being perceived as ignorant or un-woke (to use today’s term), so the politically savvy thing to do in a mixed-ethnicity group in this instance was to denigrate yourself first before speaking. “I know I’m just a white woman, stupid, but…[ask a question or make a point].” I heard this or its variations innumerable times during the year of the colloquy. At first I saw it as condoned passive-aggression by those racial-ethnic participants who were finally in an energetic majority for the whole. But then I realized everyone was simply playing their part in the higher education script. It didn’t matter whether the voice was white or black, Latino or Cuban, Celtic-Irish or melting-pot-white. The system operates as it does, and we’d all learned how to play that game. The fact that we were all there was evidence that we were survivors of an art to this conceptual violence, this game.

But something in me simply refused this new norm, this self-denigration, for whatever reason. I went to a fragile place (of course) though did my best to hide it, own it. I kept my mouth shut as I’d been schooled to do, watching and learning, learning and watching. Perhaps being on the leadership-team gave me an ‘out’ in the new norm? I don’t know. But I refused to denigrate myself in order to speak. Every cell in my being said NO, even deeply aware of the pain, if also my inability to truly know their experiences from within.

Today, I have feelings of pain and regret about this leadership experience AND I know Spirit’s use of it has been priceless, an incredible Gift for me into my own journey Work. I saw much more fully that higher education is broken. This Gift freed me of interest in any other institution or climbing any other faculty ladders, of any kind. I knew my path was breaking open, to learn what I did not know I did not know, to draw closer to the experiences of racial-ethnic faculty/normal people in whatever ways I could, feeling my way in, keeping my mouth shut, learning with whomever would show up (even if I never asked them to teach me or ‘do the work’ for me).

Significantly, a seed of confidence in my own hard-earned wisdom was also planted here. No one who has to denigrate him/her/themselves in order to be heard is participating in a nonviolent community, or in the kinds of conversation and deep-listening that I’m interested in having. I knew I was done seeking life or healing in that violence. Hannah Gadsby nails it in her own show, Nanette.

She reflects on her entrance into comedy, her use of self-denigration to get a laugh, to buy permission to speak. And so she decides, “I must quit comedy then, because I will not denigrate myself any longer, on behalf of myself or anyone who identifies with me.” The audience cheers, of course, and the remainder of the show is her brilliant crescendo to a woman sharing her story in sacred fury. No one who has to denigrate him/her/themselves in order to be heard is participating in a nonviolent communal system. Something in me knew this, even though all around me were urging me to conform, to obey the new group norm… 

Then this March 2021 weekend happened, a five-day journey with a wildly diverse group (in comparison), steeped in Circle-Way practices, with shared intentions to walk alongside one another, perchance to heal, perchance to reclaim parts of ourselves we’ve not known or claimed (yet). For one thing, the group is made of not only warriors--higher education is largely warrior-caste--but also teachers, healers, visionaries. (Angeles Arrien). More will be said over these next months as I journey and learn, learn and listen, watch and offer/receive. But for this flow of story: no one had to self-denigrate in order to speak. And while there was so clearly deep woundings in each of us, and in the whole, there was no reactivity or lashing out in any fashion. Each is responsible for his/her/their own work, in the Circle. You put what you need to into the (metaphorical/literal) Center, and the community holds it without entangling in it...unless someone decides he/she/they are called to respond. From a healing/healed place within themselves.

It was in this context that the question arose, that I want to ask white folks--with anyone else listening in, pull up a chair, if you like.

How does a white person love and honor him/her/themselves once deeply attuned to the suffering and horror exacted onto human bodies in white-body supremacy? If self-love (rooted in Source) is the root of authentic other-love, caritas, (which I believe it is), then actual love of an/other will require white folks to figure this out.

If you are white, and you finally grasp that each of us is interconnected, and all of us depend upon this beautiful-threatened whirling planet together, then how do you accept and honor who you are as a white person, while at the same time continuously receiving how connected you are to the unspeakable pain, suffering, historical-and-contemporary horror that whiteness has exacted upon Mother Earth and her beings? 

There are assumptions here (self-love, rooted in Source, root of other-love) that would take too long to really flesh out here, but more importantly, the excruciating-and-liberating breaking-open here can not be understated. I am not asking about how to value whiteness in a world that clearly already values whiteness within capitalism, to the suffering and cost of so many multitudes… Nor am I interested in ‘pacifying’ or ‘satisfying’ any white-refusal of pain-suffering, imagining that if we could just disconnect my whiteness from that enslavement so long ago then we shouldn’t have to feel any pain or suffering because of what they did so long ago. This is the puss-filled, boil-ridden wound that so many of us whites refuse and resist, aim to not-see somehow...so I’m not talking about hiding or ignoring the wound. 

But I also know that self-denigration is not non-violent. White people denigrating themselves is not the pathway to wholeness for anyone. It is violent inside, which only then gets projected outside. I know that interconnection, unveiling interconnection, is a complicated and disruptive force finding more and more Energy in the world today. I know that much of religious culture-ing in white communities--I’m thinking Protestantism/Catholicism, myself, at least--defends against change/awakening with shame and guilt, which sends most of us into self-loathing. Which begins a cycle of self-denigration that then pours hatred into the world, projected onto others... I think my question then is simply how do white people break the cycle of dissociation, disconnection, segregation within us, our habits of mind, our conceptual hierarchies and analytical responses to pain? How do white people halt the flow of their own unconscious/refused self-loathing into the world…?

I have no answers yet, except to simply keep walking with new companions who are invested in engaging their own questions, their own leadership journeys, putting their ‘stuff’ into the Center for us all to hold, bear witness to, and let go.

This is some of my stuff...into the Center...for now.

[I began a new journey with some pilgrim companions this past weekend, as each of us said ‘yes’ to a Fire&Water (&Water&Fire) Leadership/Rites of Passage invitation. There are intentional times of gathering over the next nearly 1.5 years, but there is also a nice spaciousness between gatherings, to allow for percolation and the living of life in our normal dailies. My sense of invitation to reconsider citizenship is interwoven into a visible reality and invitation to learn deeper Circle-Way living-loving-breathing within a much more diverse community than I often have access to in my religious-leadership day-jobs. From time to time, a post will appear here, with learnings that have made it into the coffee-cup (from percolating).]

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Multi-Container Life? Now and Not Yet...

A day of gratitude dawns, with a new phrase that has some energy for me: a life with many containers, or a multi-container life

Before I dive in, first, an orienting observation...particularly as it’s been a while since I’ve written here. (In the biz I’m in, we would call this paragraph a methodological moment. You can skip it if you’re not into such moments.) When these musings welled up in me several months ago now, toward reconsidering citizenship, it was quite clear to me that the writing space here was to name, honor, reflect-publically (sometimes even theologically) on what was rising in me, a writer who perhaps could give voice and words to my experience that perhaps is less uncommon than it feels to me. I was seeking companionable readers, friends, and have been blessed with them, some known, many unknown. So this is not a space for a top-down, ‘expert’s view’ of this topic,: how we ought to reconsider citizenship here in the States. Not interested in ‘shoulds’ or ‘ought to’s’ here, for me. This has been for me a heart-space, a feeling space, a way to share the undercurrents or erupting emotions that get little measured press in our civic spaces today. Which is not to say there are not, of course, erupting emotions. One could argue that is all we see in our public spaces today--usually the negative, reactive, and incendiary emotions at that. What bleeds, leads. We are primed for the anger or fear that instigates the ‘click’ that pays the advertising bills, that creates more anger and fear. 

In some contrast, I wanted this space to be for deep feeling to have a voice, but more a tender curiosity, a grief-stricken-hopefulness, a vulnerability of the human condition that is willing to profess uncertainty without fear, sadness without anger, anger without rage, love without assurance from without… Living at the intersections as I do of higher (theological) education, church/faith communities, family, marriage, friendship, circle, fitness, and online ‘communities’, I see few places for this kind of methodological intention, this kind of reflective, curious, heart-oriented listening-space. (End of methodological moment…)

What I realized today, driving back from my CrossFit ‘birthday party’...yes, I get to celebrate 52 years on this whirling globe, thank you Mom&Dad...what I realized today is that so much gratitude wells up for me from blessedly different and multiple directions, from places, persons, relationships, communities I get to participate in regularly because of the blessings of good health, a curious disposition, technology (esp today) and what I’ve both been given and have strived hard to earn. So when I’m open to it--not only on such a day like today--I get to feel deeply connected to persons near and far, quite different from me, some quite similar to me. For someone like me, that is like catnip for a cat, or to stay with my heart-dog connection, Nala, like beef consomme in a coop-cocktail glass for a dog. Which then got me curious. 

How many ‘containers’ do you pour your life into, find your own life in? The instigation here arises because so much of our outer/civic discourse seems to focus and polarize our ‘containers’, to force us to choose fewer and fewer containers of belonging, identity, and significance if we are to be authentic, or live with integrity. Like being a specialist in your container-life makes you smarter, more intellectual, more of an expert, more virtuous, or live with more integrity. This is a boomer-generation kind of question around “who are you?” or “what do you do?” It’s assuming an identity, even an intersection of identities, or a profession. But is that really accurate anymore, or even helpful? Particularly in politics or citizenship?

I remember getting some backlash about this dynamic in my clinical education days. One of the supervisors on my examination ‘board’ asked with great exasperation “When are you going to choose what you will do here? What professional path do you need to choose?” She assumed a need to choose, where I did not. She held authority on the Board, but not over the whole examination, thank heavens. She was very impatient with my sense of connection to the church, the academy, the clinical-education world (CPE), and the broader communities in which I could serve. I remember being befuddled by her question. Why narrow or choose if the pathway didn’t require you to...yet? More and more of us, even in vocational terms, are many many things today. What might our lives be like if the invitation to passion and an abundant life was a multiple-container life?

Perhaps a bit of definition will help, at this stage. In my line of work and vocation, container describes the “organizational universe encompassing all aspects of how a group lives: time, physical space, money, relational agreements, food and ritual” (Mary Pierce Brosmer, Women Writing for (a) Change, p. 182). Words with similar meaning or intention could be eco-system, home, or womb. As Brosmer continues, a container is “anything that maintains the delicate balance between open space and boundaries and [that] allows life to emerge...” 

Most of us could use this term ‘container’ to talk about the primary private and public relationships-communities within which we understand our lives: family (of origin then extended), perhaps eventually marriage or partnership or union, school, church/faith-community, city/town, county, state, country, continent, (eventually? planet?). Note that the first terms are ‘groups’ by which human beings organize into pairs, tribes, small groups, larger communities, etc. They are ‘organizational universes’ that encompass the governance of time (who’s always late in your family? :)), physical space (who’s the tidy one, and who is not?), money (how is that organized in your primary partnership, then family?), relational agreements (how often do you play together? Work together? Visit with extended family? Communicate? etc.), food (how does you primary unit make food choices? Out to eat? Sugar? Alcohol? Regular mealtimes or catch as catch can?), and ritual (what daily or weekly or monthly or yearly ‘customs’ do you observe in your ‘groups’?)... The later terms move into religious traditional or geographical reference, though they still have human-being complements or governance structures. Well, not continents or planet, really. Attempts at consortiums and alliances wax and wane, as we know. 

In much of American life (North or South, for that matter), various sports could be considered ‘containers’ as well, with participatory teams (groups with aspects similar to above) but then also hybrid participatory/fan associations, like fans of favorite teams who create a culture around being a fan of that team. Browns’ fans come to mind, of course. Or Boston Red Sox. Some sports have time-specific seasons for their ‘organizational universe’--fall sports, spring sports, decided by school schedules--while others go year-round, building a more consistent community of participation and fan-dom (often parents, with the younger ages). In this zone, a gym could be a container, of a sort. CrossFit, for instance. It’s both a fitness community and a gym, with its own relational agreements, norms of practice, time, space, money, even food recommendations.

So in our public lives, like it or not, we are all immersed in multiple containers of family (of some kind), broader community, and city/county/state/country. The more active of us, or the more professionally mobile of us, can be immersed in even more numerous containers. Rarely will we think of the containers that 'hold' our lives as a collective, unless it is within the private/public dichotomy, or the individualist frame of reference. How do my relationships serve my growing identity(ies)? can be a regular question, for instance. Or how do you tend your marriage amidst the demands of family, work, church, etc.? These are the questions that are familiar. But how do we tend the containers in our lives, individually and collectively? We rarely see the whole organizational universe, with overlapping circles or containers, let alone ask ourselves how can we best tend the whole? We look to institutional leaders or organizational science experts to inform our leaders who are to care for the institution. If we saw the multiple containers that make our lives rich and nourishing, how might we ask questions or breathe into what it means to be healthy and human within them? All of us? We are co-creating our worlds right now, after all. And what might our shared life become if it were an intention, a goal, to honor how we belong to multiple communities at once, even receive nourishment and instruction from multiple communities...even traditions...even political parties...at once?

The scholarly biz I’m in has developed words for this within religious traditional discourse--multiple religious belonging, double-belonging, religious hybridity, and more. This is probably not the place to begin, however, because it’s already fraught ground. These terms accurately describe more and more deeply faithful, spiritual people today, though it’s clearly important to develop nuance. For instance, some traditions can nourish/inform together better than others, like Buddhist and Jewish streams of traditions. There’s very little conflictual history between those traditions, in deep contrast to Jewish and Christian histories of such pain, suffering, the Shoah/Holocaust. There are Jewish Christians, called Messianic Jews, but they travel quite tender, sensitive terrain in public spheres. These 'multiple' terms can unnerve and even threaten the more conservative religious or traditional practitioners today, seeing this ‘multiple’ as a diffusion or watering down of rich traditional resources that should require higher boundaries and traditional-definitions. So maybe these kinds of terms aren't going to be helpful...

But in our refusal to open our hands or hearts, to be already who we are right now, what are we missing? In the protection of the sacred we already know, we protect/defend/grasp, what are we missing seeing about what it means to be human, that we cannot know without this one in front of us?

Such deep gratitude arises in me today to receive gifts of connection from multiple directions, near and far, each so distinct, and all so interwoven. I used to be afraid of not being seen, or not being connected, yet it is all deep within, all around me, around us all. There is such abundance, available and desiring us to surrender in (that’s for you, Quanita, learning as I am 😆). It’s deeply moving, poignant, humbling, beautiful. I know...I know...It’s easy to hunker down, especially given the shitshow that our world seems to be today. It’s easy to see only the ‘containers’ that we’ve found meaning in for years, staying grounded only in those and no others. For ‘safety,’ which doesn’t keep us safe at all. It’s easy to try to stay in the container that freed us from the previous containers that confined us so. This is my most recent learning, actually. Just because one container freed you from a previous one that was too small, it doesn’t mean that container will remain supple and welcoming enough to be your only or primary container.

What if one of the marks of deep human integrity was to be acquainted with and fluent in multiple containers, those close into your family of origin, and those further afield? What if one of the marks of deepest integrity was being acquainted with and increasingly fluent in ‘containers’ that from the outside appear to be irreconcilable opposites, impossible to love and be committed to both or all, but shaping your experience of unforeseen mysteries? What would our shared life become if we allowed each person we meet to be simply a part of a container we don’t know well yet, a part of another organizational universe that we allow to shape us, guide us, even encompass us, to know more fully what it means to be human?

It requires surrender, yes, a wisdom way of knowing assurance first from deep within first...but this is beckoned over and over again by the incredible, beautiful, and stunning mystery of each human being. Look for her, and you will see her in strength and beauty. Look for him, and he will speak to you in tenderness and humility. Amidst so much fear and anger, I can say with deep conviction: there are just as many invitations to live a life of deepening trust in one another, in multiple containers, as there are in our propensity to refuse or choose only one… 

So we get to choose...a choiceless choice, if you ask me. For how much longer can we ignore the stunning mysteries and possibilities in our fellow human beings, not to mention all sentients that surround us on our gloriously small-humongous whirling planet?

ENACTING Beloved Community

This is a phrase that undergirds the work of C. Anthony Hunt (or here ) as well as a curricular goal of one of United Seminary’s Immersion...