In honor of the defenses
Your defenses are ingenious. They have kept you alive. They have protected you from what you are not capable of experiencing. They have helped you get to today.
Sure, they might be out of date. Sure, they may not serve you in the ways that you would like. Sure, they may get in the way of you experiencing things in life that you would like to today. That doesn’t detract from just how ingenious they are.
I’ve spent quite a bit of my time trying to undo my defenses. Trying to extract them from my way of being. Why wouldn’t I? Especially in a world where we are told that the things that are in our way are either our fault or simply bad.
It stopped me in my tracks when a friend invited me to slow down and offer gratitude for my defenses. To honor them for the way that they have helped me survive.
Sometimes not feeling was the best move I could make.
Sometimes pushing others away was a way to stay connected to myself.
What happens when we approach our resistance, our dissociation, our repression, our isolation with a humble gratitude?
What might we be freed up to experience?
May I have this dance?
It’s beginning to feel a bit like there’s a flurry of emergence happening; like something that has been longing to come on the scene is starting to make itself known. It’s still a bit like a mist, not quite graspable. But clearly there. It’s coming into form through multiple channels. Through conversations and music and groups and ideas. Through books and podcasts and apps and television. Yeah, television.
And through healing. Individual healing. Collective healing.
Much like a lot of different futures, this one isn’t yet visible by looking at it head on. We have to see it out of the periphery. We have to be open to the idea that there is something that’s inviting us forward. We have to trust. We have to have faith and courage.
When I was getting ready for one of the men’s groups that I run, I went looking for a poem to help ground us into conversation. I found this one:
Advice, by Bill Holm
Someone dancing inside us
learned only a few steps:
the “Do-Your-Work” in 4/4 time,
the “What-Do-You-Expect” waltz.
He hasn’t noticed yet the woman
standing away from the lamp,
the one with black eyes
who knows the rhumba,
and strange steps in jumpy rhythms
from the mountains in Bulgaria.
If they dance together,
something unexpected will happen.
If they don’t, the next world
will be a lot like this one.
I love that this poem is called ‘Advice.’ It gives us a recipe to find our way to a new way of engaging with the world.
As we were discussing it, one of the men mentioned that he didn’t know how to dance the rhumba, and so he wouldn’t be able to dance with this mystery woman. Yet the poem doesn’t say anything about needing to know how to dance the rhumba. It only insists that we chose to dance together — or end up with a world that looks a lot like the one we’re in.
This is how this future is feeling to me. I feel being pulled toward something. I don’t feel in the drivers seat. And I am pretty sure that if I follow its lead, something unexpected will happen.
Some incomplete thoughts on conditioning and responsibility
I find myself wondering about the lines that surround conditioning and responsibility. We are shaped. Shaped by parents (including lack thereof). Shaped by community (again, including lack). Shaped by society. We could almost say that our lives aren’t entirely our own. This is being conditioned. We are also agents in our lives. We encounter experiences, and we respond to them. As agents, we make choices. This is our responsibility. Both exist, side-by-side. Both are true. And yet, these two things can be in conflict. Rather, they can create a heap load of complexity in what often seems relatively straight forward.
Let’s look at something like crime. Let’s say a violent assault. A man (Man A), is accused of assaulting another man (Man B). Perhaps words were exchanged. Perhaps there was a look, or an action. It doesn’t matter really. Man A assaults Man B. That can be the end of the story. The newspaper can read the police report, which is full of witness statements, and get the story. Print the story. End of the story.
But what if we dig deeper. Who is Man A? Where does he come from? What happened in his home? Where did he experience his earliest traumas? Where did he get his modeling? Who showed him what it means to be a man? How to settle a disagreement or a conflict? Who helped wire his nervous system?
This is about exploring the conditioning that helped to create the story. Odds are (I’d wager a bet on it) that we’ll find violence within Man A’s story. Of course, we’re likely to find it within Man B’s story as well — largely because violence is so close to all of us in this culture. We’re all conditioned within collective waters. We are all breathing the same violent air.
In many ways, one could argue that Man A’s behavior was set in motion years before by both individual (parents) and collective (society) forces. In some ways, the assault had happened before it happened. But what does this do for or say about justice? Where is responsibility?
We are all responsible for our own healing. To learn what moves in us and work to change it — where changing it would benefit us and those we live with. The responsibility for our actions comes within the healing from them. Of course, Man A should be held to account for what happened. The thing is, our current system doesn’t actually do that. In fact, it does worse. It punishes him. It likely reifies the story living in his body: you are no good; you are violent; you must use your violence to deal with the world around you. Healing becomes impossible. So the illness grows. Festers. Metastasizes.
This violent assault — where Man A is guilty of harming Man B — can be an opportunity. It can be a moment of healing. It can be a space where, collectively, we say to Man A, “No. We don’t do that here.” And then help him find his way into healing. Man B can heal as well. He can be guided to finding the place within him where violence lives, and learn what might want to grow within him.
But as long as justice means punishment, this will never happen. Justice, it seems to me, must mean healing. It must mean that we find our way back to wholeness. To recognizing that we are all products of social conditioning that isn’t what we signed up for.
These aren’t new thoughts. They aren’t really even mine. These ideas are related to concepts such as Transformative Justice that have been around for some time.
There’s so much more to say here. To close I’ll emphasize that in my mind, to recognize that conditioning plays a role in things such as this, and to reframe responsibility as about healing does not obstruct an important part of the justice process: accountability. Our culture has, in my opinion, twisted the idea of accountability into a form of punishing. But really all accountability is is a recognizing that our actions are out of alignment with our social agreements. To be supported in being in account is to be invited to continue to belong. If we want to heal our society, it needs to be done from this frame. That’s one I’d take to the mats.
The changes to come
I just sent out an email to a group that my business partner and I have been working with for a few months. It was a follow-up to a session we did with them called ‘Leading Through Change.’ In it we talked about the difference between change (a measurable event) and transition (a less measurable process that unfolds as a result of change). These are topics I’ve been interested in for years now. There are hardly any places I’ve worked in the last decade where I haven’t spoken about them in one way or another.
The thing that’s been interesting for me over the years is the reality that we live in a state of constant change. Things are pretty much always in flux these days. Heck, they always have been, but we haven’t always been able to see it (or maybe experience it so directly). The last twenty-some years have brought about rapid increase in the spread of information. The last decade especially. The last five years especially. And it’s not like that’s going to slow down any time soon.
And then we have this past year. Change upon change upon change. How much can any of us take? Especially if we take seriously that the impact of a change — again, a measurable and discreet event — precipitates a transition.
Think of a transition as the psychological and emotional process that unfolds over time after a change. Small change? No big deal. In and out of transition in a matter of minutes, hours, maybe days. Big change? We’re talking weeks, months, maybe years. Think about the grief cycle as we know it. This is a transition.
What happens when we have change upon change — transition upon transition? Especially when it’s at the scale of this past year — scale that none of us could have imagined just a little while ago. I suspect we have no idea yet.
This past year has been intense. And it’s not over. And when it’s ‘over’, we’re going to face even more changes. Even more transitions.
Do we have what it takes? Do we have the understanding of our emotional selves that we need in order to navigate the kinds of responses we’re likely to have to all of this? Do we know enough about our traumas to be able to be with them as they come to the surface?
Do we know who we need to be in order to re-connect to our lives outside of a pandemic?
I find myself worried. For myself. My friends. Our community. The world.
What is the work we need to be doing today in order to get ourselves ready for this coming likelihood?
It’s a question I think that’s worth of us all. What if I started today? What might I need to do to prepare myself?
And who can I reach out to in order to not go through it alone.
We’re going to need each other more than ever.
What if all of our words were prayers?
How would you choose to take shape if you were all that is?
Would you take the form of water?
Would you become earth?
Would you blow like the wind?
Would you cast shadow as a cloud?
Would your light contrast upon the darkness?
Would you flicker like stars?
Would you grow reaching for the sky?
Would you soar as an eagle?
Would you swim?
Would you walk?
Would you stand?
Would you feed and be fed?
Would you be born so as to die?
How would you choose to take shape if you were all that is?
Who are you?
And why? What are the forces that have created the person that you have become — not simply the person that you’ve been?
It’s easy to take for granted that we are who we are.
I’ve heard parents say that it’s clear from the moment they met their kids that there were elements of their personalities that were present from the beginning. I believe that for sure. And yet, there’s more, isn’t there? While we live individual lives, we are shaped by the society around us. The very small societies of our families, and our community, our schools, the city/town we live in, the state the country. We are shaped by media, but trauma, by happenstance. We are constantly shaped and being shaped.
The idea of who we are — of our identity — is broader than simply what we think of when we have to answer that question: who are you? Or, as it’s often asked at dinner parties, what do you do?
It seems to me that feeling our way into the why that’s behind the who is a way of getting to a deeper understanding of this life.
Perhaps this is where purpose really begins to reveal itself.