Accountability. "The fact or condition of being accountable; responsibility." Or "an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions." At least those are the definitions that arise with a quick search, feeling my way into it with an early morning cup of coffee. Then another energy arose that seems to want to dance with the word accountability. Something I read on a friend-teacher’s page recently: The issue with the term anti-racist is that it comes from the wound. A healed person wouldn’t claim anti-anything. They would stand for something. I have been sitting with this dancing-tension within me here--both deeply appreciated and welcoming with intention for the well-being of the Whole. Even so, I suspect this posting is gonna get me in trouble. I pray it is good trouble. Or at least good enough for today.
A bit of context out of which this dance arises then… Circle-way has an ethos and a grounding in a different way of being that I both had to re-encounter in my decades of higher education and that somehow we’ve/I’ve yet always known within the human genome. Different communities focus on different aspects of it, but it’s an archetypal energy that nourishes, holds, challenges (nurture-with-rigor, one community names it), protects, invites. No one is at the Center. At least none of us is. Some say all voices are equal here, while others say all voices contribute. I tend to find the latter more honest, the former still a good ideal we are striving toward. I imagine this way of being human together, this way of gathering, originated around the fire when everyone who sat in the circle knew that the circle of the Whole depended upon each and all to survive. At the very least, it’s an archetypal energy of ancient re-emergence today, calling forth a forgotten way to be human together. And that we’re not fully human until we are human together.
can invoke the archetypal energy of Circle. We can learn from the ethos and live from/through its Grounding(s).
So that’s a fingernail-sized glimpse of the context in which this tension between accountability and un-anti-anything, my inadequate short-hand for a healed person wouldn’t be anti-anything; they would stand for something. There is something here at the heart of this tension that feels contradictory inside of me, which is what usually brings me to this blog-space to think aloud, to be seen thinking aloud, to welcome others' questions and shared vulnerabilities.
One of my root communities today--Women Writing for (a) Change--has a marvelous practice for small group process, but also for practicing the ethos of the Circle as a whole: invitation, not obligation. It has many expressions throughout an evening’s writing circle, but the one in small group is the most germane here. What kind of feedback do you want? There is a list that’s been created over the years, including Heart/Gut, One True Thing, Silent Witness, or even my favorite, Standing Ovation (for having done the writing at all!). Having held these circles for years now, I always love it when I can hear the standing ovation from a small group in its confidential space, the sound traveling clearly into the large-circle room I sit in during those times. Some woman has just asked for her community to cheer her on. Love it. Craft feedback is also an option, for more polished pieces--this being the kind of feedback most often found in English classrooms around the nation. But for the most part, few writers ask for Craft, particularly if the piece is drafted, musing, reflective, curious. Additionally, red pens are not really all that welcome in a WWfaC circle. Too many bad experiences from the English teacher who squashed a student’s creative attempts. In circle-language, craft feedback doesn’t often match the ethos of equanimity and invitation well suited to the purposes of those circles: coming to voice and creative experimentation, expression. So for years now, I’ve lived into the practice of invitation, not obligation in as many contexts as would welcome it, well aware of its liberating and healing impact in areas within and beyond the writing circle.
I often find myself wondering how/if invitation not obligation could further open civic discourse to come from healing/healed spaces within us each/all, particularly in tender streams in our public spaces these days--anti-racist work, whose advocacy for justice is so needed today; diversity-equity-inclusion work in broader frames (including all PoC and LGBTQ+ persons), being intentional about the question “Diverse compared to what/whom?” that Resmaa Menakem invites (Notice the Rage, Notice the Silence); and various religious-political discussions amidst declining/refusing-to-grieve traditions and polarizing/refusing-to-grieve politics. There is a freedom and assurance at the heart of this phrase, this practice of invitation, that seems so very absent in much of the discourses I’ve just named.
What does it mean, and feel like, to speak from invitation-not-obligation, in a world where so many of us seem to need to be held accountable to the experiences of others we cannot see or do not know? What does it feel like to be spoken to within invitation, not obligation? Does accountability have a place within the energies of Circle, and if so, how/where?
[A quick shorthand in my own experiences, from what I know so far, and why I'm invested in spending the time and energies to explore all I am here. Speaking from in this practice feels like freedom from responsibility for others' choices, for their experiences, for-their-anything. I can invite to hear more, to bear witness, to be awakened by their words, but I'm not responsible for them. I can also leave whatever does not touch me in the Center, as a gift for others. I am responsible for receiving my own feelings/sensations, for my own actions, for offering what I can and asking for what I need. In my (wordless?) bearing witness, I am honoring the others' own wisdom, gifts, and resources to ask for what they need and offer what they can. Trust and shared vulnerability is the currency here. Being spoken to within this practice feels like, well, an invitation--freedom to accept, freedom to decline; freedom to pause and consider what I feel, because the speaker appears to trust and respect my voice, my words, my experience and desires to learn more for...themselves? their own purposes? The interactions will communicate that further, within Circle, within the sacred gaze of the Whole. And yes, accountability therefore has a cherished space within the energies of Circle, though it is differently configured than most of us are familiar with...self-accountability embeds within invitation-not-obligation, which breathes the ethos of equanimity of Circle. Arguably, this is the summary of all I want to say, written after a couple hours of word-smithing my own process in what follows...!]
“Accountability: an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.” Right here, we could seem to be at an impasse. Accountability is rooted in obligation, a sense of responsibility-for. Circle, on the other hand, seems to welcome invitation, not obligation. Equanimity, not expertise or sharing information, per se. Wondering, curiosity, not knowledge or power.
Does this mean we are not accountable to one another, to the whole? Of course not. Accountability is a practical world notion and necessity for us all. Government needs to be held accountable for how it spends taxpayers’ monies. Perpetrators of crimes need to be held accountable for their actions, for society to protect the innocent, the vulnerable, the marginalized. Power needs to be held accountable in Grace, Mercy, even that seemingly impossible yearning for Justice. I dispute none of this. But standing in the archetypal energies of Circle challenges this notion of accountability in some really interesting ways.
For one, accountable to whom? is an interesting angle with which to begin. To the other? To self? To the powerful (high status in money, intellect/expertise…)? To marginalized peoples? To the vulnerable? Ask yourself the question then--to whom/what am I most accountable? How do you discern/decide? So much of our overculture (Clarissa Pinkola Estes) suggests structures of accountability within terms like certification, accreditation, corporate work and the like. We live accountable to licenses and job descriptions and our superiors’ oversight in institutional organization charts. All of which shapes a power-over habit of mind--we are to be held accountable by those with the most power, or we are responsible to hold accountable those we perceive with less power. The human ego loves this game, and many of us play it elegantly well. Particularly in academic discourses, this runs rampant with call-out-culture--exposing blind spots in public ways, playing the accountability-mutuality game we’ve learned in our higher or educational environments. We jockey for who knows more and who gets to hold the other accountable. We soften it with language like mutuality and ‘for the good of the whole,’ but power-over remains at the center, with judgments arising from our ‘greater experience’ or expertise. By the yardsticks we’ve been shaped by, in… In contrast, a beautiful invitation for 'call-in-culture' can be found in a NYTimes piece on Professor Loretta J. Ross, who crafts/explores this tension-shift in her course at Smith College. "What If Instead of Calling People Out, We Called Them In?"
Accountability to what…? seems to bring more clarity to me about my own dissonance. I've learned to be accountable first to my own body-cues and sensations...A person’s communication style and word-choice (whether they’re conscious of it or not) will hint at what yardstick(s) they are using to interact with me (whether intentionally or not). I’ve learned to look for the emotional cues and the energetic charges that come in me with others’ word-choices. When I feel a power-positioning language, often experienced with someone playing the academic political game with me, I know to expect within me sensations of dissonance, discomfort, anger at an imposed presumption, and an urge to defend myself against...whatever I perceive is coming at me in a guise of ‘community’ but with language of ‘power-over.’ I've lived in higher education to be quite sensitized to this, both for my own protection and for the danger of reactivity here. I've experienced this in both higher ed and professedly circle-way communities. [note: All of this is intentionally named as my feeling/experience language; others may not be playing that game at all, in their experience of an interaction, but I feel what rises in me, and am most healthy when I honor it within…] These sensations are actually really helpful body-cues that while not desirable or pleasant per se, are so very familiar to me now. Sometimes I ‘bite the hook’ as Pema Chodron would say, but most times anymore, I’m getting better at pausing, allowing, getting curious, and then learning...bringing words to life for myself that align with what I want to live into the world, which is Circle.
Like yesterday, when a white woman whom I am enjoying getting to know used language in a public forum that felt like power-over, touching my higher-ed wound. Ironically, it was in response to a piece on proportionate response in academic/conceptual violence. She also assumed an assertiveness that I did not experience as inviting, more a demand/command, which then touched my distrust and suspicion.
Like today, as I am blessed and thankful to explore this tension I feel here with a day of writing and receiving.
For this case, it comes back to my deep experience and appreciation of invitation-not-obligation and the gentle question within that ethos of equanimity: what kind of feedback do you want? When someone approaches with a deep respect of me, also a demonstrated trust that I am doing my own work, that I am on a beautiful sacred journey, they invite me with a question more than a statement. Are you curious to have a conversation with me about your writing? Or even better, they invite me into a question that arose within themselves, instigated by me or something I’ve said/written. Something they now want to ask, something they are struggling with. In such invitation, there is a shared vulnerability at the heart of the communication, and we are automatically co-listeners, co-learners, peers, within an ethos of equanimity that rests at the heart of Circle. This invitational approach is their ante-up into the deepening-sacred-listening--they show me they are willing to be seen in their own journey. This rarely happens in higher education, and I dare say, in much liberal social justice advocacy work. Instead, I was asked to join into a conversation about accountability and mutuality, to learn of my blind-sides (which I of course have and am always curious-willing to know more as I go, though I'm often too willing to go into discomfort as a sense of penance and shared suffering). She told me to set up an appointment after a certain date with the link for the online calendar. All my body cues arrived, just as expected for a seminary professor attuned to power-over games. I've let the sensations simmer, welcoming the percolations and the bemusement, the irritations and the sadnesses rest in my cells for a while.
My journey with this simple communication has been so very informative, instructive, and fascinating. My inner life and the stories I create for myself are engrossing, predictable, and even exhausting before they ever reach the light of day, or the electrons of computer-print-prose. I won’t lengthen this by going into detail, but I’ve realized that so much of the ‘reaching out for accountability’ I see and sometimes receive seems to come from a power-over place. It’s ego habit, and it’s what social-justice-advocacy work requires today, at least if you don’t want to be accused of being complicit. Especially between white people who haven't figured out how to hold the horrors of white supremacy and rest in the divine order of things in who they are as white persons today. (see previous post). This is what I understand as the anti-ness my teacher-friend challenges with her own words.
Having clearly spent my energies here, I will say that usually, in much contrast, I don’t argue overly much with this whole accountability dynamic. Not because I don’t care about it. Not because it’s not necessary or valuable. Not because of my own privilege, which I know is great. I don’t participate in it very much anymore because more often than not, the yardsticks we’ve inherited are at the Center of it. You can tell when your body responds with an energy of protection. When someone uses language that judges your work before asking if you want feedback, or language that seems to position power-over/under in some fashion. Even assertiveness, while valuable, is a cue for me. I may or may not accept the invitation to conversation, here in the end. These reflections may be gift enough for me, instigated by the communication received.
Because as painful as it may be to say or be heard saying, I’d rather practice the self-accountability of the Circle, live fragilely/flawedly into the ethos of equanimity that trusts you for your journey, trusts that you are right where you need to be for your sacred journey, and the best thing I can do is bear witness, give you a standing ovation for showing up as you are. I want to be in this for the long-haul. If I am intent upon living-Circle, learning more and more to be Circle where I am, the power of invitation-not-obligation compels a much greater peaceableness, a curiosity with what will happen next for which I am not solely or remotely responsible. I am practicing my trust of that person's work. I am demonstrating a willingness to be present in actions/work that I may find painful, but I commit to be alongside regardless. I am responsible only for my own actions, and for owning my place at the rim of every circle. We co-create the space together, so I am responsible for my part, but also for living into equanimity. But that’s it. I’m not responsible for another’s actions, nor for their journey into deepening awareness or even self-transformation. Bearing witness is sacred privilege enough, in the flows of Circle I know and have been blessed to receive.
So I’ve landed where I know how and what to be-with in the communication that arrived for me to welcome and digest yesterday. I’m curious what got touched such that she/he/they were compelled to reach out to ‘hold me accountable.’ What is that energy living in them? There’s beautiful sacred energy there, after all...and it will be used for the good of the Whole if/when we enter into a shared vulnerability and ethos of equanimity. Not in a judgmental or fearful way, for either of us. Neither in a shaming or guilting way either, though so much of the overculture feeds on pitting one of us over the other. No, I’m curious what energy is in the other, while I tend to what energy is within me. When someone reaches out to me to invite me to a deeper sense of accountability, I vow to welcome their questions (clearly, given the verbiage here!) and I’m curious what touched something in them such that they were compelled to reach out for greater accountability in me…? If they haven’t done the work to know what got touched in them, then neither of us is in a place to have the healing/healed conversation. Because then we’re not both in Circle; we’re straddling the intersection, holding onto a past familiarity of anti-woundedness that does not serve the Whole well today.
The bemused ironies here are of course not to be missed. My words into public blog-spaces almost beg this kind of interaction. Most folks write a blog to begin to craft a public space, build a readership, and engage public discourse on social media. Never been my purpose. I'm not interested in that pathway, for myself. I write/speak in these posts to reflect and wrestle with my experience, what I’m learning, and sometimes to honor with whom I’m learning. I'm aware that many of my school's alums serve in leadership roles in small-rural areas, often enthralled with Trump/ism. I’m interested in inviting and demonstrating a different way to process. I'm wanting readers to enter into my process with me, into the practices that find me, and ultimately to find their own versions of what they’re drawn to within more Circle ethos than before. Rarely do I enter into the worlds of Should--this is what our world needs; or that is how peace will be earned, etc.--simply because that’s not what this work is about for me. That’s expertise/accountability culture, not Circle wondering and inviting.
I do yearn to lean into greater trust of those around me, even as I enter into more diverse communities with deeper and deeper pain, wounds, suffering. I know that I/my words will be a lightning rod of these ‘reaching outs’ and worse, ‘lashing outs’ given the woundedness of our public discourses today. I'll need to be listening gently to my own bodycues in how long and whether I remain in this sharing of my work, my process. But at least for now I’ve walked this integrative path to the practice of exploring un-anti-anything. Circle invites invitation, not obligation, which offers a freedom I can recommend to those I love, and those I have yet to love.
Instead of positioning against, or anti-anything, then... What do I stand for? [Circle, invitation-not-obligation, practicing and welcoming missteps and more]. What do you stand for? [fill in the blank...then practice and risk toward that...] How are you being responsible to that in your journey? How may we bear witness...even give you a standing ovation?