A piece of gum
When I was a kid, we used to fly back to Boston every summer to visit my grandparents. It was always one of my favorite things, flying. I loved the visits to the grandparents as well; they were beautiful people. I miss them both dearly. It was those visits that made me a natural flyer.
These were the days when a flight from San Francisco to Boston was made on a wide-bodied jet. There would be two aisles and loads of space. I remember three seats by the window, four to five seats in the middle, and three more seats by the window. I could have these dimensions wrong, but that’s what my kiddo memory tells me. It was not unusual for us to have our own row as a family. This meant getting to lay down. I mean, like, lifting up armrests and taking up like three seats.
When was the last time you saw three seats in a row empty on an airplane?
Not only was the plane giant and empty, but going to the cockpit was a thing. During flights. I would always ask for three things on a plane: a deck of cards (they’d give me one), pilots wings (they were pins, not those dumb and cheap stickers), and a trip to the cockpit to say hi to the pilot. They always took me. I don’t remember being able to see out the window. Nor do I remember being asked any inappropriate questions.
Flying was different then. Of course, so many things were. But I digress. This isn’t meant to be a ‘when I was a kid’ sort of piece.
Whenever we flew back east (or on the return flight), I would always carry with me a pack of gum. Gum is handy for relieving the pressure build-up in your ears as you take off and land. Chewing gum can help alleviate or prevent that uncomfortable feeling. But I had another purpose for my gum.
Once the flight was in the air, and the fasten-seatbelt was turned off, I’d get up and start wandering around. Remember, flights generally weren’t as packed as they are these days (and have been for what seems like the last 20 years), so there was room to roam. There were also two isles, so getting caught in front of or behind a drink cart (or meal cart…my goodness, they used to serve us meals!) wasn’t really an issue.
I’d wanter up and down the isles looking for something: friends.
If I saw a kid that was my age, I’d stop and ask them, “Do you want a piece of gum?” It was a simple gesture. Who doesn’t want a piece of gum? Sometimes, I’d get a “no,” but often, it was an enthusiastic “yes.” This was the gateway. Now I might have a companion for the flight.
I’ve got to be honest here. I don’t have a ton of memories of these kids. I don’t really remember what we’d do after giving them the gum. I suppose we’d chat. Perhaps we’d play cards (remember, they’d give you free cards), maybe we’d wander around. I really don’t remember. I just remember the gum—the gesture.
The reach for connection.
That’s really what it was, wasn’t it? An attempt at connecting. As a kid, I naturally knew that the flight would be easier with a friend, and I knew that I had to make that happen. The only way to do that was to reach for someone I didn’t know. I just needed a bridge—a symbol of some sort. Thus the gum.
I have no idea if this was something that I figured out on my own or if it was suggested to me by one of the adults in my life. What I do know is that somewhere along the way, I forgot about it. Connecting to others became more challenging. Walking into a room and striking up a conversation with someone I never met became a bit of an anxiety.
I stopped chewing gum in my late twenties when I was diagnosed with TMJ (gum chewing is really not advised when you have TMJ — even on airplanes). It’s not like I replaced it with mints. Or small pieces of chocolate. No, I simply forgot about the bridge. I had some relationship trauma throughout the years, and I became much shyer than that kid who looked forward to wandering the aisles of the airplane.
As I’ve been thinking about the impact of my social shyness on reaching out and generating new business opportunities and filling programs, this story came back to me. To be specific, it was while I was out for a hike, my mind wandering gently as my feet made their way back down the summit I’d climbed. The memory flowed back in like an old friend. “Would you like a piece of gum?” I smiled inside and out when it came back to me.
That’s it, I thought. I want to offer the world some gum and see who says yes. Who wants to connect? Who wants to join this other kid on this random journey. We may never cross paths again, but it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy each other’s company and, perhaps, even help each other out a bit.
How about you? You want a piece of gum?
I received an email from indeed.com inviting me to listen to a ‘Job Cast’ workshop titled Well-Being at Work: Understanding What Drives Work Happiness. The description read:
You spend a large portion of your life at work, so it’s important that you find a position that represents more than a paycheck. Trust, belonging, flexibility, appreciation and a sense of purpose all contribute to your well-being at work.
Tune in for this virtual workshop to learn how to find a job that makes you happy, plus how to be happy while finding a job.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this for a while now. I’m not quite sure that I’m fully ready to put my thinking on this down fully, but this felt like a way to introduce a concept that I don’t see discussed in a lot of places (a few…well, a very few, but definitely not a lot).
This workshop (its description, anyway) makes some fundamental assumptions. The primary assumption it’s making is that work is inevitable. That it’s necessary. That it’s natural.
The thing is, the way we’ve organized our societies — around exchanging our labor for a currency that we can use to buy life necessities such as housing, health care, food, etc. (as well as luxuries like vacations, fancy clothes, and whatnot) — is just that: the way we’ve organized our societies. It’s no more natural than the way you’ve organized your closet.
There are a lot of ways that we could organize ourselves to meet the individual and collective needs of all people, and the way we have is one of them.
For years and years and years, Gallup has done surveys on employee engagement. And for many, many years, the numbers have either declined or plateaued. And they’re not good. There hasn’t been a whole lot of improvement. And that’s despite billions of dollars spent on consultants, engagement programs, moral programs, etc., etc., etc. Perhaps the questions we are asking are wrong.
Perhaps instead of asking, “how do we help people be more engaged with work?”, we should be asking, “why is it that people have to work in the first place?”
I know, I know. There are a lot of things that need to be done in order for society to function (even if we were to organize differently around our economy and resource allocation, we still all have to poop. Someone has to deal with that). That’s true. No doubt. But let’s not let that get in the way of the larger question: why are we continuing to choose a structure for our society that has so many (more than 70% according to some polls) disengaged in their lives? Not to mention a structure that leaves so many struggling to make ends meet?
These questions actually have some answers, but that’s not what I’m up to here. Right now, I just want to lay this in the center: what if our lives were centered, and not the economy? What if our organizing principles were what is life-giving?
What might the world look like?
And how necessary would a workshop such as Well-Being at Work: Understanding What Drives Work Happiness be?
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.