Over the last couple of weeks - in your newsfeed headline, in your social media or local neighborhood, across your family dinner table - did you encounter someone threateningly Different?
Then what? Did curiosity soften your heart just a little? Did you find it in you to move towards that person in a gesture of friendship? Or perhaps to step back in a gesture of respect?
Did you allow yourself to be changed by the encounter, by your listening? Was the Other changed by being met?
When to move towards an Other in a gesture of friendship - and when to step back
For most of my life, I had one direction: move ahead, step in, step up!
My default setting as a problem-solver has been honed and well-rewarded through years in family, school, and workplace settings. I can see problems around corners when others don’t even see the corners. I can anticipate and plan. I can scrap plans and reconstitute them out of spit and cardboard if that’s what I have to work with.
For decades body-workers have told me that my energy-field extends 6-8 feet out in front of me (presumably scouting out the territory to be sure I was safe.) I guess this is how I have been able to see corners and around them.
I am not sure I ever paid much attention to whether that move was welcome or not!
And I often asked myself how I had ended up in a leadership position once again. I never thought much about whether I had intended the result or not, it was “just the way I was.”
Once I was in a leadership position, my style (I thought) was to listen a lot, build relationships, collaborate, nourish teams and ownership. And then once, towards the end of a half-dozen years as a non-profit director, one of my staff members let me know that when I thought I was brainstorming, or floating a theoretical I-wonder-how-this-would-fly, she (and others) took these as directives. I had totally missed a potent aspect of my power and how I exercised it.
I also had a commitment to transform our all-white-except-for the-front-desk organization into one that “looked” a lot more like the urban community we “served.” (See below for “White savior” phenomenon.) I likely took this on as if it were up to me alone: it was a rough and tumble “we” who was up for it, “we” who succeeded in diversifying the staff one hire at a time.
Then began what was more like a dance – supporting employees both White and Black to lean into one another’s strengths, to grow, to get along with one-another’s limitations, to grow together. A few years into it, we almost didn’t make it through a nasty altercation between a White woman and a Black woman. There were threats to quit, a lot of heavy breathing for a while, a lot of hours, over months, around a conference table, walls papered with newsprint, unpacking our group stereotypes and their power dynamics, and using W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk as required reading, connecting what we were doing around the table to our mission.
Mutual trust and affection grew. Integrity with our mission grew. Effectiveness of our strategies grew.
We remained a pretty typical organization on paper – a hierarchy of “managers” and “reports.” Yet relationship-based power flowed somewhat more freely, and somewhat bi-directionally through it.
Having stepped up too many times, for too long, I made a change in life-direction when I left that job. Shifting first to a wholistic health-care environment, and then returning to school for a Masters in Herbal Medicine. Clinical practice too was a dance, I learned: when to let the client lead, when to suggest, when to direct, when to keep my peace.
And when I stepped back into race and gender justice work, I had still more to learn in a deeply embodied way.
I was well-schooled to step back, to defer: as a woman in a man’s world, as a Jew in a Christian world. I was beginning to experience being stepped back as an aging person in a quarterly-returns world.
It was only a few years ago on a movement-practice retreat that I had a life-changing, visceral epiphany about the power and possibility of stepping back. This came as a moment of grace, as all sense of urgency fell away into an open receptive state.
I found myself in a posture of waiting. Waiting for someone/something else to move first. Allowing someone else to step forward. Yielding to the shaping power of life.
This new level of embodied receptivity has become a touchstone. The nature of power itself shifts. No longer limited resource. No longer a servant of the ego-only, the personality-only. The Power of life itself, that precedes, enlivens, powers our lives and our limited perspectives. Sooo much room for creativity to emerge, unmanaged by me!
Now it comes down to practice: I practice stepping back out of respect.
To step back as a White person in a multi-colored-world.
To step back as a cis-gendered woman in a gender-fluid world.
To be an apprentice in life in a way I never have.
To have my heart pierced over and over again, broken open again and again.
To be changed by my listening.
In this practice, the only power I give up is control that was never mine!
I gain the world as a creative partner.
I am learning to question when and how I move forward in friendship towards people of color, people all along the gender continuum, and other “Others” in my life.
I know I don’t want to use these precious possibilities for relationship for some unconscious purpose – to prop up claims to being a good person.
Truly, isn’t it astounding how complicated we can make it to come into relationship with ourselves as imperfect human beings in relationship with other imperfect human beings?