Las Vegas Shooting, #MeToo, and California Fires
(Building upon the brief entry: "The Modern Apocalypse - Part One")
Parts of Southern California are still on fire as I write this, and the firefighters and volunteers are having to contend with powerful Santa Ana winds as they work to offset the flames. I share the hope that those impacted by the fires find and create the opportunities to support one another, grieve, and eventually renew their sense of home. These kinds of crises - actual and metaphorical fires - often compel us to reflect on what is truly life-affirming and generative.
Two months ago I was scheduled to give a guest lecture at Sonoma State University on the cultural politics of place. Ten minutes before my talk I decided to forgo my formal presentation, opting instead to share some stories with the students about belonging and connection. We discussed the special places, people and music that made us feel most alive and at home. I then asked them to imagine that they were at a concert with a loved one, listening to one of their favorite musicians. When the students dropped into that subtle space, I asked them gently to then imagine hearing gunfire and screaming.
The night before in Las Vegas a man, Stephan Paddock, shot and killed fifty-eight concertgoers and wounded over 550 more - including a Sonoma State student.
My intent wasn't to traumatize the class. I simply wanted to take the opportunity to discuss (another) national tragedy out of concern that we as a society are becoming desensitized to what many fear is the "new normal." I also believe that we don't have many healthy models for the expression of collective grief. As I shared how the shooting impacted me with the students I began to tear up, and I did not try to stop or apologize for crying. A few students began to quietly weep as well and I eventually asked:
"If this killing and wounding of so many people isn't a good time to grieve, then when is a good time?"
Despite conventional wisdom and claims of cultural relativism, I don't believe that "people grieve in different ways." The length of time it takes to release grief can vary. People avoid or distract themselves from grieving in many different ways, and some people, for whatever reasons, are more comfortable with and capable of expressing grief than others. But when it comes down to it - when someone or something precious and truly loved is lost - all grief looks and feels the same.
I took the opportunity to share this with the students, to both embody grief and explain its healing capacity. It was especially important for me to share that with them, as a large professional of color. The modeling and support for public displays of emotion (especially sadness) for men (and those perceived as men) is culturally anemic and almost non-existent, save professional sports where it is acceptable for men to cry if they win or lose a big game. Expanding our emotional and social intelligences is an especially needed capacity during these times, perhaps equally if not more important than traditional University course content.
Indeed, having the "emotional range of a teaspoon" (to borrow a phrase from J.K. Rowling's Hermione Granger) can undoubtedly impact and limit the kinds of relationships we can have with ourselves and with others. In my experience, the capacity to connect to and express a large range of emotions is integral to becoming more human and living a full, intimate life.
Ironically, many of us at once yearn for a full, intimate life even as we are afraid of inhabiting such a life.
The #MeToo movement offers some potential reasons why this could be the case. While the systemic, cultural and hence gender dynamics are complex, the critical message of #MeToo is simple and clear:
Women have suffered because of sexual assault, those found responsible need to be held accountable, and our cultures and institutions need to evolve so this behavior no longer happens.
As a global phenomenon #MeToo impacts women, men, and humans outside or in between the gender binary in different ways. As with anything that shakes up culture, this phenomenon is liberating, traumatic, and contradictory. And hopeful. It will need the ongoing commitment of reflective hearts and minds to eventually balance the knee-jerk responses of how to create an equitable and safe society, especially given that so many systems are crumbling. Old patterns of relating, sexual and otherwise, are showing their limitations and decay, and it's critical that we explore and experiment with what we want to grow next. Perhaps a relevant question might be:
How are we regenerating our relationship to ourselves, each other, and our environments so that there is greater equity and vitality in the world?
The complexity of the structural and cultural dynamics informing #MeToo requires a rich discourse of philosophical exchange, visionary art and music, moral and spiritual engagement, and an embodied inquiry into what constitutes power and collective well-being. While #MeToo will likely be seen as a historical turning point - of exactly what is too early to tell - the ongoing work of how to enact healthy relationships is still years, decades, if not generations in the making.
This "long-game" cultural critique is not meant to take away from the sense of relief, healing, and agency that this movement - cultivated online for over a decade - has enabled for those who have experienced sexual assault. It's also brought to light some of the shadow aspects of our modern lives: inquiries into the relationship between gender, sexuality, and power, and concerns about "witch-hunts" and due process.
And this fiery moment has also impelled me to respond with a sense of urgency.
This starts with doing my best to be present to the women in my life: my partner, family members, friends, colleagues, and students. #MeToo has stirred up and evoked a large range of emotions and energies from women, so it is important to simply listen with as much acceptance and compassion as possible. I'm there to bear witness and demonstrate trustworthiness not to debate, justify or try to fix anything. If who I am listening to asks for a response, I give it while affirming her willingness to trust me with her story.
But at this moment, giving feedback seems less important than being present and listening.
I do my best to practice reflective, embodied listening (or simply, "deep listening"). This might sound odd or a bit of a contradiction, but deep listening is a capacity that I've found useful in relationship. It involves paying attention to the words and body language to whom I'm listening, while simultaneously paying attention to my own thoughts, images, emotions, and body sensations that arise as I listen. Again, in this context, I am not tracking what comes up for me so I can immediately fashion some kind of response, unless the woman I'm listening to specifically asks for feedback.
While deep listening might seem difficult - especially in conversations like #MeToo that can carry an emotional charge - it can be developed with practice, and one of its virtues is that it brings awareness to more of one's own unique experience, in real time.
In short, we learn to honor ourselves as we honor who is speaking.
After deep listening, I make time to reflect upon what was shared and what her story evoked in me. I've also engaged in individual and group conversations with men whom I trust, where we process through our experiences to see if there are patterns in our thinking, emotions, or behaviors.
We explore a lot of questions: Have we been out of integrity in how we relate to women and others? If so, have we've been aware of it? Are there actions that we need to account for? If so, how? How are we raising our kids?
What has #MeToo stirred up within us: Shame? Uncertainty? Fear? Anger? A sense of solidarity?
One of the more significant insights that came during an especially intense conversation with some middle-aged men who, as young boys, witnessed the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of girls and women with whom they were close. As boys they felt powerless to do anything, and the traumatic events still impacts their well-being and sense of masculinity. The men I know are doing deep work on this trauma not only for their well-being but for their children and the future of culture and gender dynamics.
#MeToo has help to unveil deeper realities about what behavior patterns and traumas we've inherited, as well as an opportunity to explore how to transmute that inheritance into something healthier.
To be continued...
An elder and dear friend of mine, Leny Strobel, recently named the importance of embodying beauty as we move towards the inevitable. I use the word "inevitable" in a way that honors "what lives must die" and not necessarily in a way that promotes the "end times" fear that many express. To be certain, modernity's worldview and technologies are capable of destroying life on the largest scale known to recorded history. This is a real possibility and we should do whatever we can to prevent the escalation of this kind of destruction.
At the same time, so much fear of "the apocalypse" comes from, I believe, the modern West's shadow around death, as well as its linear orientation around time. All that lives, dies. But with death there is rebirth. Apocalypse means "to unveil" truer realities. We in the modern West are comfortable with concepts of change, transformation, and innovation. But all of these necessitate a death of the old - a transmutation of energy and form - before the new can be reborn. But because we really don't have true rites of passages in the modern West that support and enact "ego deaths" of our previous identities, we aren't comfortable with biological death.
This is all to say that perhaps the apocalypse "prophets" are pointing to the death-knell of the modern worldview. Perhaps those of us who are stewards of the rebirth (aka "change agents"), those of us who have gone through ego deaths, might assist in whatever capacity we can the other folk and communities who are fearful and in transition. And part of the practice for me (with the support of beloved community) is to grieve deeply for what has and is dying, to listen for the intimations of new life and support it, and to help others grieve and heal so that there is more spaciousness to recognize the new, and to live beautifully.
We must live as fully as possible.
My good friend and colleague Jordan Luftig has a bold and spacious blog through UC Berkeley's Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. He asserts that "transpartisan is the new progressive" and I readily agree with the principle. We dipped into exploring "the how" through different transformative paradigms with key movement makers last November at a conference that Jordan and I convened. But the ideas and experiments of inclusivity/non-exclusion and movement building needs to continue. There's a lot to like and engage here in this brief blog. I am waiting for his book.
Read the whole blog here:
Our adolescent nation has been a source of great inspiration and horrific violence. While intimations of a more connected, generative and ecologically attuned way of living are emerging, we continue to enact violence in a myriad of ways - often unconsciously - across the political spectrum, including those of us who promote being or staying “woke” around important social and political issues.
By virtue of living in the USA I am entangled and at times complicit in the cultural and social dynamics that inform our economic and political worldviews, as well as our actions within and beyond the borders of this country. And I carry with me a sense of co-responsibility for what we create next.
Ultimately my soul wants for your well-being, wants for the planet’s well-being. In my experience, we can be graced with well-being and we can develop well-being. But both involve the gift of loving relationship that supports and bears witness to the healing that enables well-being to flourish. I believe this healing relationship dynamic to be true at the individual and collective levels.
Now more than ever I am determined to love fiercely and tenderly - which begins with this beautiful ensouled body and extends outwards, so to speak, to include more and more beings and environments. This includes the cultural and political “other.” Now more than ever it is important for me to be in relationships that are nourishing and loving - those committed to collective healing and awakening to a vantage point of subtle but profound connectedness. Precious are the relationships and communities that enable this messy and compassionate work towards greater well-being.
Awakening to increasing well-being is not a substitute for other kinds of cultural, civic or political work. Rather it is the foundation for a more robust and sacred engagement with the social and political dynamics at play. And the sacred engagement we have at hand will need to include the expression (and release) of intense emotions, the exploration of a range of coalitions - some unlikely - and the willingness to being open to “the other” both within and outside of ourselves. Demonizing the cultural or political other enacts the same energetic of separation, anger, and domination that ultimately needs to be healed and transmuted.
This is why being a part of loving relationships and community is so critical: They can fortify us with compassion for when we engage the other within and outside of ourselves. Even as these relationships help us heal and awaken they can also paradoxically keep us resilient and creative during times of uncertainty and darkness. Perhaps most profoundly, they enable us to know - in our bones - that Love is greater than fear, even when there is plenty for many of us to be uncertain about, angry at or afraid of.
May we all awaken to greater well-being, with the help of true beloveds. And let this be integral to how we create, resist, and serve as sacred warriors of Love.