Community love takes patience, persistence, and long-term perspective
Despite pollen, I love spring. Our little house sits on a small yard, almost no grass. The rock-lined paths and mulched areas already overtaken by weeds, sprouting acorns, and creeping vines.
Today I decided to pull up what I can, and to not overdo. To pull out patience with the wheelbarrow: this work will take a while.
The less-than-glamorous task of weeding is a good metaphor to doing the work of love. Sounds strange: the work of love. Yet, love is work. Whether for a person or a group of people whose inequitable rights and welfare stir you to plant some seeds of action. First, prepare the ground.
If you’re just coming into social justice work or thinking about becoming more involved, these four points (grown from my own reality) may be helpful:
Expect to pull a lot of weeds and enjoy whatever’s blooming (or budding) in the present moment.
I’m involved in two small non-profits. Weeds of resistance (some community voices oppose the work we do) but also weeds of disorganization — and sometimes contention — within. Take time to celebrate what you are able to contribute and the small wins of your collective.
Sometimes, it’s overwhelming. Start somewhere.
Go to an event, a rally, a monthly meeting. And don’t think you don’t matter because you’re new to an organization or a cause. The best allies are are humble, yet brave enough to say, I’d like to help; what can I do?
Do something, even if it’s making name tags or bringing a friend to a second meeting.
Some weeks, I can only edit press releases and other social media posts. At other times, I can help lead events and trainings. You don’t have to prove your worthiness by overdoing.
Once you begin, you’ll notice how some things are not as hard as you thought, but usually they are more so.
Top reasons why people drop out of community love work is they burn out, they get discouraged (by lack of progress), or frustrated about dysfunction within the group they support.
When you can only see the weeds, remember:
Take time for internal love work. Rest, recharge, and remind yourself that you are doing important work.
When discouraged, think of the movement as a tender child. Would you give up on your child, niece or friend? Did everyone give up on you when you were struggling? Love takes patience and trust.
When things aren’t working, speak up respectfully. After you’ve put in some time (I recommend a year at least) and built relationships, ask your leader if they would like your feedback. If not, perhaps you find another organization to support; if so:
Don’t only express the negatives. Highlight what you appreciate about their leadership and the progress that’s been made. Express that you, like them, want to be part of the solution.
Status, Salvation, and Swastikas: Indoctrination is a group thing
I finally found the magazine Annette gave me last month. Annette is one of seven Clemson “sisters” I met through a professional women’s organization in 1989. All eight of us were plenty busy running businesses, careers and families, but we made the time to cultivate deep connections. We dug beyond work-life balance, pay equity, and sexual harassment into repressed desires, regrets, and who God might be. Thirty years deep.
The best group experience I’ve ever had is with these women. In spite of the dumb shit each of us occasionally does. The Sisters are slow to criticize and quick to forgive. I didn’t do anything to deserve inclusion. I just belong.
My mind was on the rarity of groups like ours as I flipped past the perfumed ads, fashion (who buys $395 earrings?), and finally a section toward the back featuring major belief changes, as in I was a white supremacist skinhead and now lead a group called Life After Hate and The Latter Day Saints were everything to me until my son came out.
Why We Leave Groups
I know quite a bit about social identity, our sense of who we are based on group membership. But I’m always fascinated to learn how people leave an identity (even a socially-judged bad one). Especially when that identity provides a strong source of belonging.
For many, leaving a group is triggered by an event, like a child’s coming out, that compels the parent to re-examine religious beliefs. For others, it’s a longer road marked with bouts of cognitive dissonance. Only after enough wear and tear against their core values do they leave the group. And not always all at once; sometimes it’s a slow tapering off.
Much of a group’s power over the individual stems from indoctrination. Not all groups indoctrinate to the same extent. Indoctrination is simply teaching someone to accept a set of beliefs without questioning them.
If you’ve attended religious services or school, worked in an organization, served in the military, or a learned a profession or trade, you have been indoctrinated.
The very fact of being born into a culture, any culture, is an experience of indoctrination.
But, isn’t membership in a hate group something significantly different? The group output may be entirely different, but the process of attachment and resulting actions and commitment (strength of identity) to the group is not.
Merely classifying people into groups makes us think of ourselves as group members. This simple categorization leads to in-group favoritism and out-group discrimination. Recall Jane Elliot’s Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes experiment. (We don’t have to have hateful intention, but we do tend toward comparative superiority.)
We then act in ways we believe members of our group should behave. For example, if I define myself as a social justice advocate, I get trained in restorative practices, volunteer to conduct community circles, and donate to political and social organizations that seek equity. I become emotionally invested in my group membership. My self-esteem is even affected by the status my group, which I (and my group members) work to elevate.
Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress. — Philip G. Zimbardo
We continue to compare our group with other groups in both prestige and social standing. We must perceive our in-group as having a higher social status (we are in some way better) than an out-group to maintain high self-esteem.
How Does Indoctrination Work?
Mix youthful angst with a history of being bullied; add parental abandonment, apathy, and lack of structure. This is a familiar backstory shared by former extremists. When adopting a clique whose emblems are swastikas and Confederate flags, for example, you don’t have to know what they mean or believe in them:
I just knew that I could be violent and angry around them, and they never questioned what was wrong with me. I thought, ‘this must be where I fit.’ Before long, I was being indoctrinated. — Angela King
For Ms. King, as I suspect is the case for other former members, the skinheads served an important purpose: she found a place where she got to blame her parents and most of society, she got to aggressively act out her pain and was vindicated, even celebrated for doing so.
And despite her aversion to Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of a federal building resulting in 168 deaths (including children), she continued membership in the group, stealing and assaulting until she was arrested and sent to prison. While there, she met and fell in love with a black woman. The wear and tear of her cognitive dissonance, coupled with a life-changing event behind bars created the opportunity for radical change and transformation.
Enter the Enemy
Sometimes the catalytic event is an enemy in the next cell. And sometimes it’s an unexpected enemy, a loathed out-group member who comes to you, asking to listen and learn. Daryl Davis has befriended KKK members for decades and now has 200-plus relinquished white robes in his closet. Evidence of (voluntarily) hanging up individual KKK identities built on fear and hate. How does he do it?
[w]hen two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting. It’s when the talking ceases that the ground becomes fertile for violence. If you spend five minutes with your worst enemy — it doesn’t have to be about race, it could be about anything…you will find that you both have something in common. As you build upon those commonalities, you’re forming a relationship and as you build about that relationship, you’re forming a friendship. That’s what would happen. I didn’t convert anybody. They saw the light and converted themselves.- Daryl Davis
Less Radical Conversions
Leaving in-groups isn’t all that rare. Especially when you consider the breadth of social identity groups. I tend to think of conversions from one identity to another as road-to-Damascus phenomena (Saul became Paul, a follower of Christ, after being struck by a blinding heavenly light).
But less dramatic conversions — social, political, religious — happen over time to most of us; it’s part of human development. The point is not to change for change’s sake, but to not blithely belong to an identity that doesn’t fit.
People who question and explore their identities (group or individual) inspire me. Putting out feelers to assess group “fit” according to who we think we are, (especially in our teens and early adulthood) is nothing new. But identity quests are increasingly common among Gen Z. If the fluidity of gender and exploration of ethnicity are an indication of the future, perhaps more empathy, and less stereotyping and discrimination will result.
So, they’ll tell you that you can reclaim your individuality by not being a member of anything. But really, when you aren’t a member of anything, you are nothing. You are indeterminate. You are a floating nothing.
A better solution is to accept our evolutionary need to belong to groups with self-awareness and accountability:
We are all indoctrinated into values, beliefs and ways of doing things (culture) from birth. We tend not to question culture because … why would we? It’s like asking fish why they swim in water. Keep alert. Talk to others you trust when you feel any friction (wear and tear) against your values.
Our in-groups significantly determine our thoughts and actions. We can’t help but compare ourselves to those in the out-group (everyone else) as different, lacking, and even inferior. Take an short audit of your groups. Do they depend on an “enemy”? Do they hold themselves accountable?
We get competitive and sometimes violent to maintain our self-esteem, which is significantly influenced by group belonging. Do you find that you’re anxious, fearful that you’re not good enough according to group standards? Does the group exist to harm other people in any way?
We can’t escape our need to belong. Groups are not the problem; the problem is unexamined beliefs with no room to question, disagree, and discuss them. Are people within your group able to question or challenge what the leader says?
There’s a reason groupthink is still taught in the social sciences.
Sometimes I miss teaching that content. It’s been one year since leaving a 25-year work identity as a professor. Now my identity has shifted to working with others interested in both individuality and a collective goal of turning institutions of oppression into institutions of freedom. A group that keeps its members accountable.
How to kill delusions of getting our way while keeping hope alive
“Life’s under no obligation to give us what we expect.” — Margaret Mitchell
Everyone has their blind spots. Blame nature, nurture, hard-to-break habits. One of my weaknesses is that I conflate hope and expectation.
Just because I really want something and work hard to make it happen doesn’t mean it will. I put too much stock into may and might, like an overly excited kid whose parent says “maybe someday” to her pleas for a puppy.
I don’t realize why I feel depressed until I admit that what I’d hoped for was what I was set on happening. This is embarrassing on a lot of levels.
First, I’m white, not poor, and heterosexual. Being female and politically blue in a red state has its occasional issues but I am certainly among the privileged. Privileged folks have more success in getting what we want.
Second, I’m educated (also tied to privilege), and I should know better. If nothing else, basic probability theory doesn’t change by blowing on dice. My wanting and wishing won’t change snake eyes (pair of ones) into ballerina (two twos).
Third, add to the above certain traits like idealistic, moderately neurotic, an internal locus of control with Type A tendencies and viola!
Is It Just Me? Or Could Our Culture Play a Part?
Decades before The Secret, a 2006 Oprah-lauded book based on the law of attraction, a lot of best-sellers claimed that your thoughts can directly change your life.
The basic formula of expectations = success has been in circulation long before self-help was a genre.
We’re culturally set up to think this way. And that’s not going to change, not today anyway. So, what’s the harm in believing? Aren’t positive people, even when they’re a bit delusional, nicer to be around? I’d much rather spend an hour with Ms. Confident and Mr. I’ve Got a Good Feeling than with a real-life Eeyore.
Burkeman says it’s not the work toward hoped-for outcomes that gets us into trouble. It’s our tidy expectations of how and when we will be successful that messes us up. The path that ultimately leads to happiness will be paved more smoothly by “embracing imperfection, and easing up on the search for neat solutions.” This stoic path requires that we don’t ignore (or dismiss) that we in fact may not get what we want. And that’s guaranteed by our very mortality.
A Place for Negative and Positive Space in the Same Brain
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. — F. Scott Fitzgerald
While attitudes influence positive (and negative) outcomes, our thoughts and moods don’t directly lead to those outcomes. Instead, our attitudes and thoughts affect our willingness — the fuel — to keep going and to give our best.
If I’m in a good place psychologically, I tend to work eagerly and I’m more likely to pour more positivity into that work. Which increases the probability of success — but only in terms of what I can control.
Thinking positively does not, itself, cause successful outcomes.
So Do We Try to Get Rid of Expectations or Just Lower them?
Eliminating unrealistic expectations — the hoped for outcome we absolutely and sometimes desperately want—can feel like depriving us of hope’s best case scenario.
The idea is not to dilute what you hope for, but to temper what you expect. Over time, self-imposed high expectations create unsustainable demands on us and others.
By using a simple STOIC reminder, we can temper inflated expectations.
S = Stay focused on balancing your ideal outcome with other realistic possibilities. Thinking about how great it would be if your hopes materialize is certainly okay. But don’t dwell there. Consider other possibilities, including more negative outcomes, including what if things don’t change?
T = Take time to put your life into perspective. What does your hoped for outcome matter in the long run? A practicing stoic would remind us that we’re all going to die someday, which is a way to help us be present right now.
O = Offer thanks. For everything.
I = Invite unexpected visitors:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond. — Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks
C = Create more grace for yourself and others. Our very lives are not within our control. We were born into and will leave these bodies — and not according to anyone’s expectations. Including our own.
Don’t Give Up Hope
Adjusting expectations to fit more realistic probabilities is not a “one and done” endeavor. Especially for those of us who confuse expectations with hope. The point is not to dash dreams. Hope is a good thing:
Hope is a good thing maybe even the best of things and good things never die. — Andy Dufresne, Shawshank Redemption
And if hope is indestructible, it helps to envision expectations as something fragile that we choose to carry on a long journey:
Expectations were like fine pottery. The harder you held them, the more likely they were to crack. — Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings
Of course, we don’t have to carry any expectations at all. I’m not sure whether that might be true enlightenment or another unrealistic expectation.
Given that higher education, business schools in particular, rely on and reinforce these lies, it was hard for me to pretend, to lie about the lies not being lies.
These lies (myths if you prefer, and I’m getting to them) have seeped into America’s water supply for so long, it’s hardly fair to pick on higher education. Or to assume that most educators and staff consciously choose to drink them down. But make no mistake: Education does Corporate America’s bidding. Whether there’s enough money for 2.5 percent merit increases or clean classrooms, the amount of corporate funding for public research and influence over curricula is staggering.
Administrators don’t push back too hard. They can’t afford to. Nor can their faculty afford the freedom to communicate ideas or facts (including those that are inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities) without being targeted for repression or job loss. A little erosion of academic freedom can seem a small sacrifice when program funding, endowments and naming opportunities abound.
I wish I had a dime for every time I heard the term “professional” used in lieu of “political” or “quiet” or “agreeable”. As in, “She needs to be more professional in how she comes across.”
Professional is code for not stirring shit up. And by shit, I mean acknowledging that cultural lies exist. And that they’re passing for truth.
I tried my professional best. During corporate and big donor visits, it helped to pretend I was in a movie. But I didn’t pretend with students. And every once in awhile, when I assumed that those bright, blithe kids weren’t interested in questioning what they were fed (your brand is everything, people treat you as you train them to), one of them would prove me wrong by holding the lie up to the light.
The Five Lies
1. Career success is fulfilling
This is the lie we foist on the young. In their tender years we put the most privileged of them inside a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.
I see it as a hamster wheel or the “come on, kitty kitty” described by Alan Watts in Music and Life. After the AP classes, the perfect resume, the six-figure salary: You’ve arrived! Soon followed by inevitable letdown.
Brooks says, “The truth is… if you build your life around [success], your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.”
Of course, the hamster wheel is only available to those with enough privilege, access to loans, or luck to get their educational ticket punched. Not all beckoned kitties are able to follow the carrot when they’re malnourished or overwhelmed by the sticks.
And even if we were to imagine all Americans healthy, eager, and equally able to be herded, a career will not help us discover our life’s meaning. A career requires time and focus, usually demanding time away from those we love. Careers are simply how one or more jobs hang together over the course of our lives. What we do within the confines of each job can be meaningful, but the work cannot love us back.
2. I can make myself happy
As with education in general, I’m dubious about individualism. After years of studying social and organizational cultures, I’m aware of both its empowering and disabling aspects. Self-reliance is a noble value, yet it presumes that we have roughly equal access to food, shelter, education, jobs and mobility. Bootstrapping only works when you have boots that fit your feet.
Brooks points out the “lie of self-sufficiency,” the pretend belief that I accomplish happiness by myself. If I can do x or buy y, then I’ll be happy.
I’m unaware of any deathbed lamentations on not having acquired enough stuff. If you watched Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, you’d remember he talked a good deal about enabling others’ dreams. What you might not know is that he said “help others” or “helping others” 16 times.
Happiness is not simply found within. As Brooks reminds us, “It is found in the giving and receiving of care.”
It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! No one teaches us these skills.
An invaluable lesson I learned just before I left academia is that no one benefits when I communicate from my shallows. More than a few of my students inspired me to dig deeper and become more vulnerably me, which pointed me away from higher education and toward more community work.
3. Life is an individual journey
This lie is related to ‘I can make myself happy,’ and the one that gives us the false notion that “freedom is the absence of restraint.”
Brooks says that in reality those who live best tie themselves down:
They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem and get called out of themselves by a deep love.
Two years ago I learned that my college wouldn’t support a position I believed we needed: a faculty liaison to connect business students with community leaders through service-learning projects. My idea was to expand students’ work experience (beyond corporate internships) to include non-profits in return for earned credit hours. Other benefits included learning how to work with limited resources on local issues, and the intrinsic reward of helping to improve one’s community.
I no longer wanted a job simply about me or my teaching. I felt less and less comfortable inside my business school silo, especially in a city with 40% poverty. Just as I learned my dream job wouldn’t materialize, a writer for the college’s slick magazine asked me: What do you do when you’re stuck in a career or job slump? I apparently gave this answer:
I’ve had several careers, and the feeling about where to go next has usually come from the community. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I need to think, ‘What can I do for others today?’
I was surprised to see it in print. As I read my own quote, it seemed to reveal its purpose. Three months later, I gave my notice.
4. You have to find your own truth
This is what Brooks calls “You do you!” It is the privatization of meaning… everybody gets to choose…
The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to [these communities] and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.
Brooks is right when he describes how most of us (who do ‘me’) end up with a few vague moral feelings but no sense of purpose. In fact, how, especially, are teens and young adults supposed to figure out their truth? Especially when:
A few people with power, prestige, or personal connection tell them what to believe.
We are increasingly more insulated and isolated. Technology exacerbates these conditions (have you looked around a campus, restaurant or any public space, lately?) and our media — most of it — thrives on promoting fear and divisiveness.
The social-emotional guidance some of us received during K-12 is simply not available to millions of American students. As humans, we need time to understand our existence, knowledge, matter, values, reason, mind, and language — the content of philosophy.
Philosophy is not a substitute for religion. What leading a moral life may look like (while still retaining choice), and how morality differs from being lawful or ethical, is missing in education, business, and society at large.
5. Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people
This lie blatantly challenges America’s liberty and justice for all but we all know there’s more or less liberty and justice depending on who you are (i.e., what you or your parents are worth).
Although we adore a good rags-to-riches story, I think the truth is this: We love immigrants and native-born underdogs once they become rich, famous, and powerful. That’s when we fully adopt them. The same was true of the Irish, Italians, and Jews at Ellis Island. But this was never true of millions of African ancestors who disembarked from ships during the Middle Passage.
The message of meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. The false promise of the meritocracy is that you can earn dignity by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love — that if you perform well, people will love you.
The Takeaway: A Simple Syllogism
What I appreciate most about Brooks’s piece is that he widens our lens beyond faulty institutions and systems. Name something you don’t like about America and chances are it involves a behemoth, faceless institution: our political system, education, the economy, health care, welfare, Wall Street.
Instead, he gives us something we can (and do) own. He challenges us when he posits that our biggest problems are societal: they involve us. The real takeaway, then, is an opportunity. One that can be expressed as a syllogism:
We live in a culture (like any culture) that is based, in part, on lies.
We are each part of, and therefore responsible for, our culture.
We can change our culture.
How is this possible? Culture is vast, pervasive. But culture is merely the way we do things in various contexts. It changes. All the time.
Culture is certainly influenced by leadership, but it’s not entirely foisted on us. On the other hand, it’s not always optional. We adapt quickly — one of our best and sometimes worst features. (Do you ever find yourself reaching for your phone because everyone else is hunched over theirs?)
The fact that each of us may be complicit in perpetuating a culture that doesn’t always tell the truth actually gives me hope.
We are more powerful than we are taught to believe.
When you tell one person that, in fact, their happiness doesn’t depend on a high-paying career or you reassure them that they alone cannot make themselves happy, you help them hold a lie up to the light.
We don’t have to quit our jobs or start a revolution to improve our society. As its members, we have both the right and the responsibility to stop pretending. To no longer lie about lies not being lies.