Saturday, February 18, 2023

Open to Change

My life has been filled with a fair bit of change and transition over the last few years, surrounded by lots of uncertainty. That has made for a natural time for reflection, and already being the type of person disposed toward reflection, I’ve been spending a fair bit of time thinking about the shape of my life: the decisions I’ve made, dreams I’ve chased, failures I’ve felt, and unlooked blessings found along the way. Like probably many of you, my life hasn’t taken the course I expected it would take, but I am profoundly grateful for where I find myself now and for the paths that still lie open in front of me. 

At the heart of that journey has been maintaining spiritual and reflective practices that support my aspirations, especially those related to kindness, wisdom, and justice. For decades now, for example, I repeat a simple aspiration before I meditate: “may I be with these next moments with openness and curiosity, with gratitude and kindness, so that wisdom can arise.” Those words have soaked into my heart-mind and become a familiar friend. After a few years, I found that they followed me off the cushion. Practicing with them intentionally made them available to me when I needed them during the day, when they can invite me back to the present moment, especially when I begin to feel overwhelmed by the uncertainties and sufferings of life. 

Practices like this have been more important to me than I even realized. I was looking back at old journal entries and discovered that, time and again, I have had to make conscious decisions to not give up. I don’t know how universal this is but, given the conversations I’ve had with others and the data that is available on activism fatigue and burnout, it feels relevant. In 2021, Mikayla Tillery pointed out that “Activism fatigue tends to spike after notable political action” and that: 

“What makes activism fatigue that much more overwhelming than traditional burnout is that activists’ work is tied to identity, injustice, and agency. The political is personal, so the weight of our oppression is a constant stressor that cannot be lifted without our liberation. This pressure combined with the current expectations of selflessness, martyrdom and unfettered loyalty within activist spaces make burnout nearly inevitable.”

Perhaps most importantly, she wrote about how social change actions and movements often include a culture that pressures us to push ourselves and our limitations past a healthy point in order to achieve a goal or “reach a finish line”: 

“When we juxtapose the low valleys of burnout with the mountains of celebration, it justifies the idea that our suffering is needed to deserve success. Without addressing the root issue of activism fatigue, celebrations will only habituate burnout. / Eventually, the celebrations will become meaningless, and a once-insatiable yearning for justice will pale to insurmountable exhaustion.” 

        I felt those words in my body, and I remembered so many moments where I have experienced it within myself or witnessed it in others. For example, when I moved back to Missouri 2010, I was full of energy and ideas. I had spent three wonderful years working with innovative peace and justice organizations in Cambodia, and I was both hopeful and confident that I would be able to translate those experiences into something wonderful here. But southwest Missouri has been a very difficult place for me to live and a challenging place to cultivate communities where justice and compassion can thrive. I have a clear memory of bottoming out during the period of time between when Mike Brown was murdered in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 and when our local city rallied to repeal an ordinance that extended basic civil rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in April 2015. That was an exhausting, heart-breaking, devastating year. 

        But, reading my journals, I saw that I was already struggling with the beginnings of burnout just two years after moving here. In December 2012, I wrote that: 

“Since moving back to the United States in 2010, I have felt again that one of the biggest challenges of living here is simply maintaining this kind of confidence. The problems are so complex, the cultural violence is so entrenched, and the system is so well-oiled and on such a huge scale that it is easy to be discouraged. Still, I have to keep going. The alternative to seeking a more peaceful way in the world is no alternative at all.”

I was evidently giving myself a little pep talk; if the stakes are high enough, you can’t give up, right? But I was also doing some good work. In the rest of the journal entry, I described studying the work of Albert Bandura on self-efficacy. Bandura famously wrote that: 

“People's beliefs about their abilities have a profound effect on those abilities. Ability is not a fixed property; there is a huge variability in how you perform. People who have a sense of self-efficacy bounce back from failure; they approach things in terms of how to handle them rather than worrying about what can go wrong.” (Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control, 1997)

In my work in community development, we had to focus on transforming failure into learning and growth. Especially in that field, and in my work in peace and conflict programming, there are so many variables that it is difficult to anticipate exactly how things will happen in the real world. You have to learn as you go and make adjustments. Self-efficacy is a key skill, because you a certain amount of failure is practically inevitable. We did our best to build that into our organizational cultures, from the way we wrote job descriptions to the way we handled monitoring and evaluation. It was especially important that we were able to talk about the things that didn’t go as planned, instead of feeling pressure to hide them. I have worked with organizations where this wasn’t the case, and the tremendous amount of pressure, often tied to funding, took a lot of the joy out of the work while also undermining the health of the programs and organization. If you can’t recognize and handle failure, you can’t learn; if you can’t learn, you can’t respond in wise and just ways to all the unexpected twists and turns in life. 

        Creating those personal values and organizational culture, then, needs to be a priority. But it is not automatic, and it is something our broader society struggles to do. Wrestling with that very question in 2012, I was especially interested in the way Sharon Salzberg, an insight meditation teacher, connected self-efficacy to community and kindness. In The Force of Kindness, Salzberg explained that “Kindness points to the core of what it means to be alive, which is to be connected.” We depend on one another from birth. And when we experience that connection with kindness, we see a reflection of “our own value.” We learn that we also can and even have a “right to be happy.” And another person’s kindness, rooted in their connection to us, communicates “the unspoken message of their efforts – that we are worth the bother.” And that feeling of our mutual value and worth, grounded in and growing out of our shared connection and kindness, supports developing self-efficacy: 

"This is the difference between pain and hopelessness, between distress and bitterness, between suffering and despair - sorrows or difficulties arise, yet we have some sense of confidence that we can find a way to work through them." 

        In my journal, I reflected that, “Reading Sharon's words this morning was a very kind encouragement to see the difference between pain and hopelessness. I feel really grateful for remembering that and a renewed sense of confidence that we CAN find a way that does not sacrifice justice or peace.” Connecting kindness with self-efficacy has been important to me ever since, but I hadn’t remembered where and when that insight had taken root in me. Looking back at this journal entry, I realized that cultivating this insight was also a demonstration of joining kindness with self-efficacy. In a moment of time when I was discouraged and unsure if I could muster the energy to keep going, I practiced kindness toward myself. I took the time to discern “the difference between pain and hopelessness, between distress and bitterness, between suffering and despair.” Taking the time to do that work allowed me to adjust course and keep going. That was encouraging to see in my past self, and added to my current confidence that I can find ways to work with and through difficulties as they arise. 

In translating the Discourse on Happiness, Thich Nhat Hanh chose the words “To persevere and be open to change” to describe this factor in cultivating “the greatest happiness.” Looking through the lens of my 2012 journal, I understand that description in a different and deeper way. It takes those personal values and organizational culture to feel and be safe enough to open to change. In his commentary on the discourse, Thich Nhat Hanh acknowledged that “It is incredibly difficult” to hear it “when our brothers and our sisters point out our faults”. Exploring some of the reasons why this is often the case is another topic. But recommitting to the kinds of practices and processes that make opening to change possible is something that we don’t have to wait to do. 

In Tillery’s reflections, she noted two prominent reasons behind social justice burnout: underappreciation and “a lack of self care and community care.” This is a good starting place for us to ask: when have I felt safe enough to be honest about my struggles and limitations? When have I been safe enough to open to change? Community that is characterized by gratitude and care provides a container for us to heal and grow. This emphasis on healing and growing, at least in my experience, feels very different than an emphasis on self-improvement. It is more relational. When I am wounded, it brings a healing presence that includes grief, and my wounds are not understood as inconvenient obstacles to productivity. My healing becomes part of the work, and my growth becomes part of the work. And so does your healing and growth. 

        And this includes even and especially the painful work of transforming our internalized oppression and internalized dominance. These unhealed places in us are the source of some of our most difficult problems in sustaining healthy community. They make it almost impossible for marginalized people to feel and be safe enough to belong, and often turn that belonging into the constant work of managing pain from overexposure to people who haven’t done the work. As I’ve encouraged us to practice in the past

  “Assume you have internalized oppression and domination. In my experience, the default assumption is often that only ‘bad’ people have internalized oppression and domination. So let’s change the measure: justice-minded folks actively work to recognize their implicit biases and are intentional about changing their habits of thinking, speaking, and acting to align with their values.” With practice and over time, we can change the script, becoming open to change. A wise, justice-minded person receives correction as a gift, because we know how precious it is to get an opportunity to practice in a way that brings freedom from greed, hatred, and delusion. A compassionate person receives correction as a gift, because we want to reduce the suffering and harm we cause in ourselves and in the world, while increasing our kindness. 

        When the community is healthy, then we want to know when we have done something hurtful, and we are not threatened by hearing about it. With this context, we can hear the fuller comment by Thich Nhat Hanh, because we understand how it becomes possible for opening to change, learning, healing, and growing is a gift to all of us: 

“When we can yield to reason and let someone correct us without becoming angry or resentful, then we will find that happiness remains with us. It is incredibly difficult, but when our brothers and our sisters point out our faults, the best thing we can do is put our palms together and bow in appreciation, with graciousness on our faces and in our hearts.” (from Two Treasures)

  This is more vital than many of us have considered, and too easily forgotten. Prioritizing communities where good-heartedness becomes the norm, expressed through gratitude and kindness, is essential for both our personal and collective well-being. Returning to Salzberg’s insights connecting self-efficacy and kindness in community, we remember that “in the absence of receiving this kindness, something in us does die, at least for a while, unless and until it can be restored through love.” If we take this seriously, we can connect this to all the ways that our unhealthy, unjust society has been killing us off. Knowing those tender places better is painful, and often enraging, but it also opens the door for us to learn to love ourselves and each other in ways that can restore and transform that suffering into understanding and compassion. 

        And this is where I’d like to add at least a third element, that of trust. Our gratitude and kindness help us create this safe environment where we can be open to change, but we also need to be intentional and explicit about how to sustain that safety. Trust is something we create and re-create together. This is why we’ve emphasized -  

“the importance of centering the voices and needs of marginalized people. Oppression is the most severe and cruel normalization of harm, and it destroys the possibility of trust. This means that prioritizing justice and equity are part of the restoration of trust and the healing of both people and society. Similarly, the wellbeing of marginalized and oppressed people is the measure of the health of a society. Any work we are doing that ignores this dynamic will ultimately undermine our efforts, whatever our intentions.” 

When we are able to create that kind of trust, sustained by gratitude and kindness, then openness to change is more natural and joyful. We feel freedom to breathe and be ourselves, and we can thrive. Salzberg called this

“one of the great fruits of the kindness we receive from others – it supports our sense of being someone deserving of love, someone who can in turn accomplish something, who can vanquish difficulties, who can make it through the travails of life, who can be a good person.” 

This is a more sustainable, even regenerative pathway for changing ourselves and our society. It connects us to a shared vision of justice and equity, where every voice can be heard and need can be heard. I know I repeat those words often, but I need to repeat them. Nurturing that aspiration keeps me grounded, even when the difficulties are overwhelming. And when I stay open to change, I know that I am holding a door open for others to change, too. This is true, even when things don’t go the way I hope, when life-saving legislation is overturned, when the powers-that-be protect a violent and corrupt system, when the change we desperately need seems so far away. With kindness joined with self-efficacy, I know my capacity for change is not a limited commodity. I am part of a long line of people who refused to give up, who nourished their own capacity to grow in love and understanding in themselves and each other, and who passed on that aspiration for justice and compassion to all of us who are willing to follow in their footsteps. I can do the same, and so can you.