Resignation vs. Hope
“Polarization,” noun, a sharp division, as of a population or group, into opposing factions (dictionary.com). A concentration about opposing extremes of groups or interests formerly ranged on a continuum (Merriam-Webster.com). Why we are screwed (DrJenny.com). Most traits or characteristics live on a spectrum or a line graph, with fewer and fewer data points at the extreme ends and the bulk of the grouping in the middle. Think “bell curve,” or the description of a “normal distribution” based on probability. Remember in middle school learning about this? The mean, the median (always confused me), outliers, and the crazy result of symmetry, or how each side is a mirror image of the other. While it is not always appropriate to apply the logic of a bell curve to everything, I shall use it here as a metaphor.
For the last year and a half, I have been facilitating Diversity and Inclusion trainings for a top global consulting firm. While it sounds impressive to some, at the end of each day, we are all people, human beings with strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and a deep need for connection. The content is not only important but terrific. The design of the course allows for people to step into the conversation no matter how far along they are with it, and then continue to grow. No bell curve here as the vast majority of participants embrace the importance of inclusion. The question is how to do it…for each person, influenced by their generational and cultural upbringing, has a schema or set of beliefs and assumptions they operate from. Taking this invisible fishbowl we all live in to visible is THE task. And perhaps THE task for the planet right now. Hope.
A man in his forties told a story that brought me to my knees. At the beginning of the day, we tell our stories of bias and stereotype to both connect with our own experience and bear witness to each other’s. No matter what, each of us has had this experience, and if allowed, we can uncomfortably acknowledge the pervasive nature of human bias. This man, a naturalized American citizen from India, has lived most of his life in the northeastern US. He told of his American dream, you know, the one where he started with nothing, worked hard, had jobs at a grocery store and a mall during college and grad school to pay for rent and food, and with a lack-luster resume, continued to push and work until he earned a job at this prestigious consulting firm and now is a partner. His daughter was in second grade when Trump was elected. He came home from work that day to find her in her room, packing a suitcase. “How many suitcases do we have, Daddy?” Perplexed, he looked at her and asked why. “Because I have to fit everything I love in there.” Still not understanding, he again asked why. “Because they told me at school today that I have to go back to where I came from.” A collective gasp shot across the room. “But darling, you were born here. You are an American,” he said to her. “No, I have to go back to where we came from because we don’t belong here anymore.” Silence took us over as this gentle, kind man paused, and the impact of his words hit each of us like a hammer. He shook his head involuntarily as he bathed in the painful memory and fought his tears unsuccessfully. The room stood vigil with him, holding space, giving space, waiting for him. As the tears streamed down his face, he bravely wiped them and continued. “That day broke her,” his voice trembled. “Now, at nine, she wants to change her name to Sarah, something American. She has a beautiful name, but it is now too ethnic for her.” “I suspect it broke you, too,” I said as gently as I could. Nodding yes while working hard on composure, he took a few deep breaths. Resignation.
It is hard to describe what happened to me in that moment; to all of us. As I looked around the room, I saw many things. The first was that no matter what each person looked like or where they were from, they were crying, too. Most were crying inside but we were all crying somehow. We are a nasty breed, human beings, having the power to inflict pain in incalculable ways. Seven-year-old children don’t have hate like that naturally, they are taught to hate like that. Our problem is that we have been teaching hate unconsciously for so long, it has become our fishbowl. It would take a library to document the psychology behind our fear-driven hate, but nonetheless, it exists. The other thing I saw was how the room moved. Each person there became a stronger stand for prevention, for leveling this playing field, you know, the one we all need each other to survive on. Perhaps it was the story or simply the trend, but I see change happening at this firm. I see a population dominated by White men and moving hard toward center, looking for ways to break the bowl and have more of an ocean. Hope.
On this very same day, the impeachment hearings were being held just miles away from the Virginia office we were in. Incredibly perfect, ironic, and profound. As we wrestled with how to create a more inclusive culture, Dr. Fiona Hill was testifying, no holds barred, shattering the fishbowl in DC. In our session, we talked of “moving the needle” of inclusion, meanwhile, she was creating a new gauge. As I sat in the airport after the session, I scrolled frantically to catch up on the day’s events. I watched clips of testimony of Dr. Hill and Mr. David Holmes with hope stirring in my body. Not partisan hope but hope for humanity. This craziness we are stuck in has gone so far beyond politics, our search for a political solution is bankrupt and obviously failing. We need a human solution, one that seeks to restore our humanity instead of destroying it. Resignation. And hope.
Human beings are survival animals. I have said and written this repeatedly, and by the way, this is not my opinion, this is fact. Not fake facts driven by personal motive, but scientific fact. I would say to research this if you have doubt, but most don’t know how to identify proper research anymore because those out there stirring the pot have gotten so good at pretending to be proper research. I am tired of the lies, the gaslighting, the greed, the personally motivated pretending to be for the people. I am astounded by the global movement towards hate and exclusion. I am horrified by what people are doing to each other without flinching. How have we become so numb to this devastation? Unfortunately, the answer is: it is actually human nature. Resignation.
Once upon a time, human beings struggled to survive. Not like we do now, but in terms of shelter, food, water, and safety. The “hunter-gatherer” human spent each day ensuring there would be a tomorrow. All mammals live in a tribe—cats and dogs have packs, horses and large animals have herds, dolphins have pods, and humans have tribes. We need each other to survive. Perhaps this is why mammals have a Limbic system or emotional brain, tying us together emotionally forever. Reptiles do not have this part of the brain. An alligator lays an egg and then moves on, without incidence because they are without emotion. The alligator baby is born completely wired to survive, and in perfect Darwinian fashion, either does and passes on the strong traits of survival, or doesn’t and with it, die the lessor traits. Technology has taken Darwin’s theory out of the mix for humans and likely, anyone reading this does not go to bed wondering if they will physically survive tomorrow (barring illness). We have shelter, food, and water pretty much handled. We wonder if we will survive the stress of tomorrow, not the weather or drought. Because our tribe is an integral part of our survival, we are innately wired to see and fight difference. Imagine you and your tribe have a great little spot, nice caves, good trees, a natural water source, animal and plant life to sustain your life, and survivable weather. Along comes another tribe, wanting your natural resources because they need to survive, too. Threat! This is a distinct threat, and fighting is a natural reaction because hey, there is only so much water in our spring.
The difference (supposedly) between humans and other “lessor” animals is our frontal lobe. We are supposed to be able to rationalize our reactions and then behave better. But we don’t. We react, not respond, but we pretend we are responding like a grown-up would. More and more, I see the grown-ups of the world acting like children, really RE-acting and protecting themselves as if their survival were at stake, not giving a shit about the other. We lack the emotional strength to identify when we feel threat, making us lash out even more. Trump has successfully triggered a fear response in a group of people, his machine had rendered powerless, wondering if they will be taken over by the up and coming tribe, losing their resources and ability to survive. It is so natural, you can’t even see it. And they can’t see it because it is their fishbowl, and you know, we all have a fishbowl we survive in. Our bell curve has turned into a battle ground with two sides and very few remaining in the middle. The “formerly ranged on a continuum” part of the definition in the first paragraph is the devastation. We need our range, our continuum back, before the entire graph deconstructs. Resignation.
So, what do we do? To get our continuum back, we have to stop allowing our reactions to dominate and begin to respond. Each and EVERY one of us has to begin to identify when we feel threatened and then stop and ask if we really are under attack. Emotional threat is real and powerful, but much more manageable than physical threat. Those of us that are physically threatened each day have different work to do, but those of us that are not, need to step up and change the world. Be angry but don’t be cruel by managing and being responsible for how you feel. Feelings are powerful but must be paired with thought for power. Spread a need and desire for understanding and thought instead of reaction and devaluing. I am not trying to sugar-coat or minimize what is going on here, but how many of you reading this actually have policy power politically? While the average citizen only has voting power in terms of policy, we all have personal power. I am not a fan or a supporter of the current administration, how it is being wielded, or the restrictive, dangerous, and nasty diatribe it supports. I hate the lying, on both sides. Since politicians have been historically liars, we have assimilated to it successfully. Part of this is because we are all liars. Yep, I lie, you lie, we all lie, so deal with it. The human brain will override the mind at times and that is when we lie. We lie when we feel threatened or need power. We lie when we feel vulnerable because that somehow messes with our survival button. We lie when we don’t like someone and want to feel better, more powerful than, or dominate them. And then we lose track of the lies. Resignation.
Standing for the truth is much harder than succumbing to a lie. I wish it were the opposite, but somehow it isn’t. Sometimes, standing for the truth is more costly, even in the long run. Our cultural aversion to sustaining personal cost for the truth is killing us. If I had a dollar for every person who told me they can’t tell the truth about something because they will lose their job, or not get the promotion, or be shut out, or physically threatened, I wouldn’t need to work ever again. It has happened to me, and I bet it has happened to you. I still buy Starbucks coffee when that is all that is available even though they suck environmentally because of well, coffee. I would starve before buying Chick-Fil-A, so there is my spectrum or bell curve failure. Personal need (yes, coffee is a need) has to be accounted for, and when you either don’t understand or don’t try to understand another’s personal need, we all fail the curve. It is all relative and inherently personal. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t common ground. Both.
I have remained friends on social media with a woman I barely knew before the 2016 election even though we couldn’t be more polar opposites politically. I don’t know if the politics we all are suffering from are a moral issue for her, like they are for me, but I find it surprisingly important to remain connected. She loves her family, just like I do. She loves her animals, just like I do. She works hard, just like I do. When she posts things I whole-heartedly disagree with and know are false propaganda intended to push her threat-button that she cannot identify as such, my reaction is anger and frustration, but my response is to wonder what drives that kind of thinking in a woman filled with such love. I search for compassion and middle ground. She recently had a family member go through a terribly scary medical procedure and all I could think of was how to help her. We don’t really have the relationship for me to help her, but human to human, I wanted to help. See, she and I agree to disagree AND still value each other. I am putting words in her mouth, but she has not “unfriended” me either, and we “like” each other’s posts that straddle our common ground. We need to be able to have discourse again in order to survive this. We need to stop needing to be so RIGHT all the time and be able for both to have some right and some power in order to survive this. I refuse to succumb to my daily bouts of resignation. I demand hope from myself instead. Vacillate and then return to center, to the mean or the median, whatever the heck it is but just move back towards center because that is where survival actually lives. Battle resignation with response and BE hope. We are truly all in this together so let’s start acting like it. Thank you for reading this, Jenny.