Welcome Back! If you were here last week, you heard part one of a two part message. If you weren’t here, never fear, I will get you caught up and today will make sense. But first… a story about wellness.
Sandy and Nancy offer a fantastic service at C3 every week. They volunteer their time to offer us free blood pressure checks. (Applause!) Of course, I don’t need that. I’m not as young as I used to be, but I’m in good shape. I take care of myself.
Then two weeks ago, I was talking to Sandy and she suggested I sit down and have her check my blood pressure. And I say, “nah.” I didn’t want to because I’m sure it’s fine. But I value what people in this community do and I wanted Sandy to know I value her efforts so I let her…
And she looks at me, turns white and asks me how I’m doing. Fine I say. She doesn’t seem to think so. She tells me the numbers. I know they’re higher than usual, but I don’t know what that means. And I don’t ask. I’m embarrassed and – yes – I’m ashamed. Someone knows something about me that isn’t “good.” My numbers are high and that probably says something “bad” about me. So I don’t even ask her what it means. I just make some noise about feeling a bit stressed in the moment, it will go away and I get out of there as fast as possible, reluctantly taking with me the card she wrote those numbers on.
There are other signs that something is wrong, but I put it all out of my mind. But on Wednesday morning as I sit on my desk I see that card and I decide to look at it. 167/106. I wonder what that means and if it has anything to do with the headaches I’ve been getting, the nausea and the flank pain.
SHIT! This is like a seriously high blood pressure! I go to Walgreens and get a reading of 162/103. I call the doctor and end up in ER where I sit with my fiancé Leif going through the long list of don’ts, checking them off one by one. I don’t smoke, I don’t overeat, I don’t over drink, I don’t have stress. But that’s a lie. I have lots of stress. So now I start feeling like a failure for not handling my stress better. How could I do this to myself? What’s wrong with me?
Then it turns out I have a kidney infection. Simple. I’m one of the lucky one’s because now I can feel better about myself. Our approach to healthcare in our country is largely a shame based system. Even with the best of intentions, we too often end up shaming people for doing what we told them not to do before things went wrong. For not thinking positively enough to heal themselves. For not being as healthy, as strong, as relaxed as they might in another ideal world be.
But it isn’t just healthcare and the ills of our individual bodies that we try to control with warnings of Don’t and messages of shame, it’s the ills of our society. This was our focus last week.
Here’s the review part: 1) Society is a mess.
2) Our first line of attack is usually “Don’t do it.” “Stop.” “Just say no!”
3) “Don’t” doesn’t work.
Don’t’ doesn’t work because it is a shame based approach to problems. There are three key reasons why “don’t” is more likely to create shame than change.
1) It oversimplifies complex situations
2) It actually makes our brains stop working
3) It is an authoritarian approach
Shame makes people feel powerless. Shame makes us fearful of sharing our honest thoughts and our emotions. It may artificially control our behavior in the short term, or we may get better at hiding our behavior from others, but it doesn’t make us change.
Shame does make us more introspective, but not in a productive way. We become preoccupied with our failure to meet other people’s expectations, and in the process we fail to develop a feeling of empathy for others. It is empathy for others that motivates us to be more fully human, to live a good life. Shame, on the other hand, makes us more judgmental of others. Shame makes everything worse.
So what does work? Harnessing the power of “Yes.” We have to believe first of all that something WILL work. If we have already made up our mind that society sucks and it has always sucked and it will always suck – then game over. Go home. Seriously. If you can’t imagine things getting better, then you are living in a self-fulfilling prophesy. So go home and prove to yourself you’re right.
But if you are here because you have the audacity to believe that we have the power and the ability to make a difference, then you are in the right place!
So let’s see if we’re on the same page today. First, let’s test the script. Can you say “Yes”? Can you say it any louder than that? A little more enthusiastically? OK, then, here come the questions. Can things change? Yes! Can they be better? Yes! Can we all play a part in making that happen? Yes! Do you want to know how? Yes!
Fantastic! I worked hard on this message and I was going to be awfully disappointed if no one wanted to hear it! We harness the power of Yes by doing 3 things:
1) Accepting that solutions are not easy
2) Inviting and modeling authenticity and vulnerability
3) Engaging our creative imagination
First, Yes means recognizing that there are no easy answers. The solutions we discover will be as complex as the problems they seek to solve. There is a theory that most people give up just before their breakthrough would have occurred. We need to be the people who don’t give up.
Accepting that solutions are not easy also means accepting the fact that they won’t be perfect. We need to be willing to try the untested and the unperfected so that we have something to improve upon. We need to be willing to try what we haven’t tried before. And that means being willing to take risks.
Which implies a process, an unfolding, a progression. This is not a single game of chess that you win or lose. It’s a strategic assessment of complicated relationships and interdependencies. If we’re going to find the answers, we have to stay in the game. It will test our resiliency. It will test our resolve. It’s easier to give in to “that’s the way it’s always been,” to give up, to let go.
After getting some press about the condoms being sent to Venezuela, I got some push back. One person felt the need to reflect on the pitiable amount of good 12,000 condoms could do for a population the size of Venezuela. They are right, this is not enough of a donation to fix the problem, but it’s enough to effect the people at the clinics who receive them. And frankly, to spare one person an unwanted pregnancy or a case of HIV is worth the effort.
We can focus on the problem, discover it is insurmountable, and go back to watching TV. Or we can focus on the solution knowing there is always SOME thing that can be done. We don’t need to solve the entire problem, we just need to care enough to figure out that one thing we can do.
And if that sounds easy, it’s not. There are far more powerful forces at work to discourage and dissuade us. If we are going to find solutions, we need to find the energy and the tenacity to hold onto the rope in a game of tug and war with forces that seek to maintain the status quo.
Second, solutions are going to require that we be authentic and vulnerable. I hate this one. I hate it because I’ve been immersed in a shame based culture that has beaten into me the idea that I’m not good enough. That I am flawed and insignificant. And when I bare my soul to you, when I strip away the masks and the façade, when I am most genuinely me, I take a very big risk. I risk you discovering that I’m not perfect and maybe rejecting me as a result.
So even though you figured this out a long time ago, here’s my confession. I’m not perfect. And I take comfort in the fact that none of us are. If we want to move forward we have to be honest about our starting place. We need to drop the charade and admit that we really don’t have all the answers, that we struggle with our own demons, that we are all products of an imperfect environment.
We have to be authentic and vulnerable because it’s the only way we can invite others to be authentic and vulnerable with us. We need to be able to unpack the cultural messages we carry around without even being aware of them. We need to own our own judgments and prejudices – because that’s the only way we can take them out, evaluate then and decide if we want to keep them or not.
So much of what we think, how we react, who we are comes from beliefs and perceptions we aren’t even aware of. This room looks different to me standing up here in the front of the room than it does to you. If I want to address the aesthetics of the room, I had better look at it from a lot of different angles and perspectives.
We are all products of our culture. We have all absorbed ideas and opinions without even being aware of the process. We can listen to other ideas and opinions but they will never touch us if we are unwilling or incapable of looking at the lens through which we view the world.
And that’s true of everyone we interact with. I can make the most compelling argument about my belief system and how the world operates – in fact I might be doing that right now – but everything I say has to go through your filter. So the first task is to understand our filter.
When we share our authentic selves and our honest experiences, we often discover that much of what we thought was true, is not. In college binge drinking is a genuine problem. But if you tell students “Binge drinking is a problem on college campuses. Don’t do it,” the problem actually gets worse. On the other hand, if you tell them that 75% of the students never engage in binge drinking, they often discover that fewer students drink than they thought and they are less likely to do so themselves. Last week I mentioned the problems with DARE and why it isn’t working. Some school districts have been paying attention and are modifying their program to make it work. What works? Skip the authoritarian cop and have peer to peer conversations with role playing for real life social situations.
I know all of us are heartbroken over the tragic hate crime in South Carolina this week. 9 innocent people killed at a prayer meeting at their church because of the color of their skin. Racism is not going away in our country and the way we are addressing it, I don’t think it will ever go away.
If we are going to get serious about this social issue, we need to change our strategy. We have to move beyond telling people “don’t” feel that way and then shaming them when they do. All that does is drive destructive feelings deeper underground where they fester and further infect the carrier. Instead, we have to create spaces where we can also be honest about having less than charitable thoughts about other people.
One of the most important parts of my anti-racism training was when we met in our caucuses. There was a white caucus and a people of color caucus. In those safe places people could express the dark thoughts and feelings they were carrying. Then they received understanding, support and compassionate challenges to those perceptions. Those conversations gave people the courage they needed to confront themselves when the caucus ended and we were all in the same group again. We all have biases. It’s part of being human. It is in acknowledging those biases that we can decide to consciously shape and control them and no longer allow them to control us.
The parts of our self that are hidden and unexplored have control over us. They make us react without our even being aware of our reactions. It is only when we are safe, knowing we will not be shamed for thoughts and opinions that we dare to be vulnerable. This is a radical idea in our culture. Our culture tells us to fight and to discredit others, to prove our own superiority and the superiority of our views. But when we start to humbly admit our own shortcomings, we develop compassion toward the shortcomings of others and we seek to preserve each person’s sense of dignity and self-respect while offering healthier alternatives for viewing the world.
Finally, “Yes” requires engaging our creative imagination.
We know that our economy isn’t working. Our educational system isn’t working. Our prison system isn’t working. Our health system isn’t working. Our political system isn’t working. But because it’s ours, it must be the best possible system available. Right? Absolutely not!
We don’t think there’s anything better because we lack the creative imagination necessary to envision anything new, anything different, anything better. Everything we are doing is part of the cultural construct we have developed. Which means none of it is absolute. Which means everything can be put on the table.
Just as individuals need to identify, own, evaluate and rewrite their own scripts, we as a society need to start looking at the underlying framework that keeps our institutions in place. We need to identify them, own them, evaluate then and replace them with better alternatives. We need to see society not as a something that has been established, but as something that is still in process, evolving, changing, learning and growing as it goes.
And we need to be able to think thinks that haven’t been thunk before. Roger Martin, author of The Opposable Mind suggests we will find solutions when we develop our ability to hold two opposing ideas at once and then create a synthesis that contains elements of both and improves on each. I said earlier that we aren’t perfect. That’s true. The other truth is that we are absolutely perfect. We are both imperfect and perfect. When we can hold two incompatible thoughts in our head at the same time,, we stop vacillating between the two as if we have to choose one or the other.
When I led Extended Grace we had a problem. Most of the people in our community were marginalized and had limited or fixed income. They struggled to make ends meet each and every week. We also had a ministry to support. We worried about passing the basket every week knowing that there were some people who could not put anything in and we didn’t want them to feel that they were not contributing because they couldn’t give money to the support the community. We thought about not passing the basket at all, but offerings always go down if you don’t actively ask for them. And we wanted to give everyone the opportunity to give if they were able. Back and forth we debated. Do we pass the basket or not? Do we risk embarrassing people or losing income? What’s more important in the long run? Pass it, don’t pass it? Should we do one or the other?
And then we figured it out. The purpose of passing the basket needed to be expanded. It needed to be a giving and receiving basket. We started passing the basket with at least 20 one dollar bills in it and we encouraged people to give or to take from the basket. People were invited to give when they could give and to receive when they needed to receive. That basket ended up helping people get over rough spots while keeping their sense of dignity intact. And it helped us to be true community, actively caring and supporting each other.
Our lives are complex. Our issues are complex. We need to move beyond yes and no, beyond either or, to find solutions that are not immediately obvious, but that may seem entirely obvious after the fact.
About a month ago I had a phone conversation with someone who coaches speakers. She looked at my website and then told me everything I was doing wrong. Don’t say it that way. Don’t include so much content. Don’t confuse people. She was right. I knew I was approaching my message from the wrong angle, but I just couldn’t get past myself to figure out how to phrase things differently. I was stuck in my own head, struggling to approach my own materials from a different perspective. She told me that if I got a job with my current web site it would be a miracle. I got off the phone knowing I had an enormous amount of work in front of me and feeling incredible tired and weary.
Two days later I talked to website specialist. I told her our conversation was premature because I had so much work I had to do. She agreed that maybe we were talking early but asked me about what I was trying to accomplish. She listened to me and then she echoed back what she thought she heard. She encouraged me to find new and creative ways to express myself. At the end of our conversation I knew I had been approaching things wrong. I knew I had an enormous amount of work in front of me and I felt incredibly energized and excited about doing that work.
That is the different between “Don’t” and “Yes”. The result of Yes is that individuals feel empowered and energized to become more fully human and society becomes healthier and more just.
During this month of wellness, one of the most important yesses we can all commit to is to take advantage of health screenings wherever and whenever they are offered. Nancy and Sandy will be happy to check your blood pressure here today. And they won’t embarrass you or shame you if the number isn’t what you hoped it would be. And Sandy, please accept my special thanks for your care and your follow up.
Society is a mess. Let’s fix it! Don’t is not a solution. Solutions are not about control, rules and laws. They are about changing perceptions, attitudes and opinions. They are about challenging underlying assumptions, preconceived ideas and unconscious prejudices. They are about looking at things from a different angle or a different height. And they are about daring to imagine what hasn’t been done before.
Change your perspective, change the world.