Upgrade Your Swiss Army Knife: A Metaphor for TransformationJuly 3, 2012
Working With Contraction: Practices to Sustain Social ChangeSeptember 3, 2012
Since childhood I have experienced and witnessed plenty of violence and trauma, as well as the cruelty and unfairness of oppression. Since I was a child I have also intuited an underlying goodness in everything and everyone.
Like that radiant succulent growing in my concrete walkway, a persistent love for and trust of Life insists on blooming in me, even in the middle of hardship and loss. That undaunted love isn’t unique to me. That’s just life. Life is courageous and loving.
Life is stronger than the concrete of shame and aversion that we direct towards ourselves, towards others, towards life. But somehow that concrete is always underfoot. Everywhere you turn, the assumption that “something is wrong” pops up:
Something is wrong with my body. Something is wrong with me. Something is wrong with my family. This pain in my body is bad; how can I get rid of it? My thoughts are too negative; I have to fix them. My people are bad. We need to change.
Internalized oppression is one source of shame and blame. We learn to see ourselves and our people as less than. We are denied agency and pride. We can never measure up to the imposed standard.
Internalized dominance is another source of shame and blame. We learn to see ourselves and our people as superior and disconnected. We are denied our interconnectedness with humanity. no matter how much we conform, we can never belong. Oppression forces our communities to inhale hate and self-hate.
We have learned so many ways of automatically blaming and shaming that it’s almost impossible to discover our natural temperament, our innate rhythms, our true nature. To be able to trust that what I am is “just fine” is far out of reach.
It is true that in order to create a loving, just world, we need to wake up to what needs to be changed. We need to pay attention to what privileged communities are doing, and who is being impacted. We need to pay attention to what is happening in marginalized communities by bearing witness to injustice, and identifying what is wrong.
But we can fall in love with the practice of naming what is wrong. We can make it a habit. Whatever we practice over and over becomes our superpower. We can become so sophisticated at pointing out what is wrong that we impress (and perhaps intimidate) our friends. We may feel a rush of competence and confidence as we call stuff out. And that’s fine.
But if we make this practice a habit, we run the risk of blaming, shaming, and reinforcing the messages of oppression–that concrete we are struggling to break free of: There is something wrong with me. There is something wrong with you. I am bad. They are bad. In this atmosphere, our attention gets focused on avoiding judgement.
Naming what is wrong can be a liberatory practice that brings attention to that which has been overlooked. But he whole point of healing work, the whole point of justice work, is to pay attention for the sake of mending and healing those who have been harmed.
The whole point is to co-create a loving reality where all are loved and cared for. The point is to love, and to bring that loving attention to whatever needs it. Sometimes in our zeal to name what is wrong, in our zeal to change ourselves or the people around us, we forget this.
Something that we could all use more practice with is to uncover what is good. To name the goodness. Anticipate it. Welcome it. Find out what is loving and life affirming in what we are doing, what we are feeling, what we are saying, what we are attempting.
Here are some examples of how finding the goodness can liberate and transform:
Finding the Goodness in Addiction
The knee-jerk response to addiction is that addiction is bad, and addicts are messed up. But Gabor Mate unearths healthy, life-affirming impulses underlying addictions. He finds the goodness in addiction by explaining substance abuse as the addict’s attempt to compensate for their brain’s inability to process dopamine and endorphins.
It turns out that childhood trauma arrests the growth of the receptors for these essential chemicals. Without dopamine and endorphins, humans are unable to experience basic human states of love and connection, or motivation, curiosity and aliveness.
Substance use is an effort to restore our human birthright to function and feel fully alive. By finding the goodness in addictive impulses, Mate makes a strong case for replacing the “war on drugs” with healing and treatment.
You can hear Dr. Mate talk about this 12 minutes and 23 minutes into the video:
Finding the Goodness in Oppression Survival Strategies
Dr. Joy DeGruy, the author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome
brings attention to the African American parenting practice of deflecting any praise of one’s children with complaints about them. DeGruy points out that this practice needs to be changed, because this habit of denigration undermines the self-esteem of African American children. But instead of saying, “This is bad. What is wrong with us?” she unearths the goodness that underlies this parenting practice.
During the time of slavery, when a white slave owner praised an enslaved woman’s child, she would immediately disagree and list that child’s myriad faults. She did this to protect her child from being viewed as valuable–and saleable–by the white slave master. She did this to keep her child safe and her family together.
By finding the goodness in the survival strategy of verbally denigrating children, DeGruy honors generations of resilient African American parents who have fought fiercely for their families in the face of atrocity. She demonstrates how finding the goodness heals internalized oppression, and restores the dignity and pride that support new ways of being.
Finding the Goodness in the Introverted Temperament
When we notice someone at a gathering sitting quietly in a corner, we often assume that something is wrong. Are they upset? Are they a snob? What’s wrong?
In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking
Cain tells us that 25-30 % of people are introverts, a misunderstood and underappreciated minority in the extrovert-dominated U.S.A.
She asks us to stop (mis)judging introverts as antisocial: “Don’t mistake your (introvert) child’s caution in new situations for an inability to relate to others. He’s recoiling from novelty or overstimulation, not from human contact.”
Going against the extrovert stream, Cain finds the goodness in introversion by encouraging introverts to value the gifts that accompany their temperament: “Use your natural powers of persistence, concentration, insight and sensitivity to do work you love and work that matters.”
Finding the Goodness in Perimenopause
When my memory and mental sharpness began to falter in my mid-forties, I immediately thought, “what’s wrong with me?” While I kind of enjoyed the new fluidity of my consciousness, medical writings that pathologized estrogen loss stirred up my fear with their tips for “coping with the deterioration” of memory and mental acuity.
In a recent conversation with Sarah Holmes of the Blue Otter School of Herbal Medicine
she reframed estrogen loss during perimenopause. Sarah told me that, similar to the natural hormone shifts of adolescence, estrogen shifts in older women eventually even out.
She also shared the insight that estrogen-related changes in memory and thinking can usher in a new kind of consciousness. When women who have conformed to white and male dominated norms of linear thinking start to experience phenomena such as stand-up comic Sandra Shamas describes
they have more access to the rich, circular ways of thinking and expressing that are integral to indigenous and non-european cultures around the world.
you can watch Sandra Shamas’ hilarious and poignant illustration of how the perimenopausal rite of passage allows women to step into their power.
By finding the goodness in perimenopause, Sandra Shamas and Sarah Holmes redeemed and revalorized perimenopause for me as a big–and natural–adventure. Their reassurances gave me permission to enjoy the unpredictable rhythms of my female body. Now I am more able to travel this uncharted path with agency and trust.
Finding the Goodness in Human-Made Disasters
In Coincidences and Likely Stories, Buffy St. Marie surveys the mess of social and environmental injustice that afflicts First Nation communities and the entire planet. Then her song Getting Started reminds us that human beings are a young species:
Now it’s not the way it should be but
I know it’s not the way it could be and
It’s pretty good for kindergarten, and
C’mon, we’re only getting started
The goodness that Buffy St. Marie insists on finding reminds us of the human potential to grow and learn from our disastrous mistakes.
As these passionate, creative people demonstrate, finding the goodness by asking “what is right about me/us/this situation?” is radical and redemptive. Finding the goodness can shake off the contamination of oppression, and liberate unstoppable hope and creativity.
We can become more skilled at finding the goodness by practicing it in modest ways each day. We can listen to people like Joy DeGruy, Gabor Mate and Sandra Shamas and be reminded that our temperaments, paces, needs, and survival strategies are healthy and life-affirming. And we can also uncover and discover this on our own if we slow down and pay attention.
For example, it was because I slowed down one morning and decided to assume the best that I finally recognized the gift hidden within my daily morning fog of irritability. I noticed that this fog became a well of serenity and creativity once I surrendered to it and stopped trying to “function” or “produce” anything.
When I simply allowed my body and the moment to unfold, amazing shifts and insights emerged. Now I know that this time of day is the best time for me to start a creative writing project.
For the sake of loving and healing what dearly needs our attention–in our bodies and communities–you can choose to become skilled at finding the goodness.
You can practice slowing down, breathing, paying attention, and listening for the goodness. Find the goodness; allow the goodness to find you.
You can impress your friends with your skill at finding beauty and redemption in contrariness and rough edges. What would your life be like if you allowed yourself to be wonderstruck at whatever arises?
You can assume that new wisdom is trying to emerge through each of us. Like birth, effort is involved, messiness is involved. You can be a patient midwife for others’ wisdom, and become a loving steward of the wisdom entrusted to you.
Michael Franti of Spearhead has the last word:
Learn to be skillful movers of the stones
that block the heart and turn humans into clones.
Learn to forgive, set free the bones.
Touch with your flesh, take off the rubber gloves
Love like your life depends on it, because it does