Aurora, Anger and Evil

I first heard about the shootings a week ago today as I was driving on the freeway en route to see the new Batman movie with a friend.  The radio DJ made a reference to the “horrible act” and gave some basic information which left me with some questions and curiosity, but no alarm.  At the theater, my friend filled me in, then we enjoyed the mindblowing phenomenon that is The Dark Knight Rises and went home.

I spent the next two days deeply angry.  I thought about blogging then — the artist in me wants to be fully present with and free to express my most intense emotions while they’re happening — but the scientist in me wants to be prudent and gather more data before publishing any findings.  The scientist won, although I did write an epically angry epic poem on Sunday.

You might assume I’m angry because of what the shooter did, killing 12 people and wounding 58.  That’s not why.  I became incensed because of what I saw and heard in the media, and how the event was instantly, and virally, constructed,  packaged, delivered, and received.  My déjà vu was intense and disturbing to me.

I have now lived long enough to see history repeat itself in my own lifetime.  One of the many beauties of being young is thinking the world is new because it’s new to us.  At a deep level, we often have a hard time believing older folks, because our incompletely developed neocortex thinks this time is different, I’m different than anyone before, this is all new, and history just started.  In some ways this is true and at best delightfully refreshing and inspiring.  At worst, it is insulting and myopic or even blind.

I was in my native Los Angeles in April of 1992 during the L.A. Riots/Uprising, which occurred after a jury acquitted the four White male police officers accused of beating Rodney King.  Twenty years later, I saw a media story describing the riots as happening after King, who died this summer, was brutalized.  Not true.  The riots occurred when justice did not, and for an act that was caught on tape no less.

And also twenty years later, not blocks from where a White policeman pulled a gun on a group of us UCLA students protesting police brutality down the street from south central L.A. as it burned, an eminent African American surgeon is humiliated, minimized and silenced when faced with persistent discrimination and outrageously prejudiced treatment.  The case of Dr. Christian Head is disturbing in itself, but that it is happening at my alma mater in the same city as the King beating and L.A. riots, is downright depressing.

Why?  Why haven’t we learned?

On July 1st, citizens of my beloved Mexico went to the ballot box and the man who emerged triumphant is a man not a single one of my many mexicano friends from various walks of life and social classes voted for, nor any of their friends and family.  Amid widespread accusations of electoral fraud and vote buying, Peña Nieto and his PRI party were declared winners, not 12 years after the PRI was jubilantly ousted after 70 years of de facto dictatorship.

Why haven’t we learned?

Now we have a mass shooting, 13 years after the Columbine massacre, which occurred when James Eagan Holmes was 9 years old.  How is it that we allowed one more young man in our country to grow up in such a way that he saw  murderous behavior as his only option — or as an option at all?

I don’t profess to know anything about Holmes’ heart or mind — the evidence points towards him being very smart, very deliberate in his planning of the attack, and an unhappy person — and in truth none of us may ever know.  But where is the introspection and the conversation about how WE contributed, and how WE let this happen?  Again?

I had high hopes eleven years ago when 9/11 happened.  When I turned on the TV that morning and saw the destruction, one of my first thoughts was “maybe this will finally make a difference.”  I hoped that more of us might be jolted awake, start to listen, start to reflect, and start to question our identity as an infallible hero nation. I hoped more of us would start to really examine what might make a person — or a people — do such a thing, and how we might see ourselves in those shoes, and then do our part to co-create a different kind of world.

Instead, we went shopping, we went to war, and we handed over our freedom and privacy to our government.  We didn’t learn.

And now, once again, I see little introspection.  Right after the Aurora shooting, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner separately denounced the event, and the actor, as “evil”.  Obama seemed to take a more measured approach, calling for “prayer and reflection” not only for those directly affected by the shooting, but also “for all the victims of the less-publicized acts of violence that plague our communities on a daily basis.”

Amen Brother Barack.  Preach!

But in doing more research, it seems Obama did, indeed, also use the e-word.  Why is this a problem?

This is a problem because first of all, not everyone agrees on what evil is, where it comes from, or even if it exists at all.  It’s simply strong, archetypal language meant to communicate that something or someone is really, really bad or wrong (in our eyes).  Second, and more importantly, calling something or someone “evil” allows us to dissociate and distance ourselves from the person or event.  They are evil … and we are not.

Such distancing is problematic and dangerous because it allows us to see the “evil” person as less than human, which justifies us doing violence back and treating him or her in other dehumanizing ways.  It prevents us from having empathy, seeing connection, or realizing “there but for the grace of God go I”, for truly none of us is all good or all evil — we are not the archetypal characters in movies like The Dark Knight Rises.

Distancing and dissociating also serves to absolve us of any responsibility.  Absolving ourselves of any responsibility for “evil” committed by other people is problematic and dangerous because it keeps us in victim mode.  If we believe there are evil people who do evil things, period, then we can’t do anything about evil when it shows up — other than pre-emptively identifying and neutralizing the “evil people”, perhaps, which opens up a whole Pandora’s box of fascist possibilities.

I’m not talking about blaming the victim, but seeing the bigger picture, and the way we are all connected.

Ultimately, absolving ourselves of any responsibility prevents us from actually solving the problem.  Peter Finocchiaro wrote in the Huffington Post that the “evil” position is “fatalistic, counterproductive”, and “intellectually lazy”.  As Gawker’s Max Read put it: “James Holmes did not materialize in a movie theater in Aurora … free of any relationship to law and authority and the structures of power in this country.”  These events take place in a context.  We all contribute to, and participate in, that context.  We breathe it into being and keep it alive.  But because we do, each of us therefore has the power to change it, by shaping the behaviors, values, conversations and decisions that create that context by making new choices about our own.

One of my favorite new quotes is from Boston College professor Bill Tolbert (as quoted by international organizer/facilitator Adam Kahane): “If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.”  To me this is the core of so many matters — we need to figure out how we are part of the problem, and work on changing that, instead of distancing and dictating.

We contribute and we co-create, we are rarely innocent victims in The Big Picture.  It’s ludicrous to describe something like the Aurora shootings, or 9/11 for that matter, as “senseless”, “”unthinkable”, “unimaginable” and “inexplicable” (some of the words used by politicians in the media).  It’s precisely because they are thinkable and imaginable, that Holmes was able to do them, and why such incidents occur with some regularity — 14 times in the past 5 years, in fact (take a look at this analysis by the Pew Research Center  on what has captured our attention to media).   Just look at the scenes in any of The Dark Knight movies Holmes seems to have been reenacting as a case in point of the imaginability of such scenarios in real life.  Dismissing them as senseless and inexplicable keeps us from taking responsibility, getting at the root cause, identifying the contributing factors, and making new decisions and taking new actions to reduce the possibility of them ever happening again.

But apparently we aren’t learning.  Or perhaps some interest is served by us not learning?

This brings me to another reason I was angry (and am again, now that I write).  Out of the many horrors we humans perpetrate on each other, or willfully ignore, why is THIS type of incident the one that gets all the attention?

Let me give you some examples of other horrors deserving of attention and outrage, off the top of my head:

  • 46,800 people die each year in the U.S. from traffic accidents (by comparison, 18,300 from homicide)
  • Sleepy (often overworked and stressed out) drivers kill 1,500 people and injure 40,000 in the U.S. each year
  • Drunk drivers kill 10,300 people per year in the U.S.
  • One of my favorites: 90,000 people are killed each year in hospitals either through preventable medical error or hospital-acquired infections.  That’s the conservative estimate (I’ve seen numbers up to 178,000).  This is the equivalent of 9/11 happening 32 times each year!
  • 50,000 people have been killed in Mexico since 2006 in the drug wars there, largely fueled by U.S. Americans’ demand for drugs.
  • 5-15 million children die of starvation each year on Earth, a planet fully capable of feeding everyone, but whose human inhabitants create tremendous disparities in the distribution of its resources (we’d need 5-6 more Earths to support every human living like a U.S. American, for instance).

Evil you say?  I think some of these qualify.  So why isn’t anyone clamoring to get rid of cars, or to redistribute wealth so not one more child starves?  What about a real uprising about the immorality of our healthcare system, or widespread alarm about all the Mexicans we are murdering and torturing with our drug use (not to mention the damage we are doing to ourselves)?

And hey while we’re at it, what about a media firestorm, personal presidential visits, and demands for justice about Enron’s implosion, Bernie Madoff’s crimes, or the subprime loan fiasco?  These kinds of “white collar crimes” have affected millions of people in ways their descendants will feel for generations, and defunded incredible, creative, world changing projects.

Or how about about some outrage over the multiple U.S. citizens whose lives and families have been destroyed by them being targeted by our government, imprisoned in a secret location, abused, and finally released with no charges filed?  Or the murder of 17 Iraqi civilians by Blackwater?   That’s more people than James Holmes took out, and far more sinister.

We still need to be introspective and take responsibility for these situations too, but at the risk of sounding heartless, any of these examples strike me as far more evil and destructive to humanity than 12 folks shot dead in a movie theater by one unhappy, damaged man.  Sure, events like Aurora traumatize us, and a movie premier shooting might feel more personal and more visceral than the other examples, but I believe that in The Big Picture such things actually affect us less in the long run.

In doing my own introspection, I have been looking at my anger.  I am learning from my reflection and research (the scientist again) that anger is a secondary emotion that can serve to camouflage or control another emotion, particularly fear.  It can serve a coping, self-soothing, analgesic function which numbs pain and allows vulnerable people to survive destructive or dangerous situations.  Anger can alert us to attack, which I already knew, but what I didn’t know is that it can also alert us to a “something is terribly wrong” situation.

Perhaps I’m angry because I believe there are many things terribly wrong in the world, and since I’m afraid we aren’t going to be able to turn things around in time, I numb myself and maintain some sense of control by getting angry.

I still hope and believe we can solve the problem — if enough of us get crackin’ quickly enough.  Interestingly, the “defeat the enemy” neural pathway and the “solve the problem” pathway are close together in the brain, but “defeat the enemy” actually neutralizes our problem solving ability.  Maybe this is the subtle, and profound shift that we all need to focus on.

So why haven’t we learned yet?  Maybe that is also a key to the shift. And is it that we haven’t learned … or are there interests being served in keeping us from learning?  Are there interests served in the way events like Aurora are framed?  And in the way our attention and outrage is focused?

Answering these questions might get us closer to a more important question: Will we learn? And if so, how do we make different choices and take different actions based on our learning?

Answers and hope continue to be my quest.  What about you?

In Lak Ech,

~Jaxsine~

From Within or From Without?: The Locus of Catalyzing Change

My sister recently reminded me of a conversation we had years ago.  Apparently I was quite certain that the best way to create positive change in the world is to become a part of organizations and institutions and be a catalyst for change from within.  Infiltrate the system to bust it apart from the inside, so to speak.

I’ve changed my mind.  Well, not entirely — I still think change can, and should, come from inside organizations and institutions.  But having spent seven years trying to do just that, I now have a more complex view.

Each has its pros and cons.  Some of the pros of working from within:

  • You get to know the culture first hand, and therefore the most effective, appropriate strategies and tactics for change.
  • You get to know the people well, and build long-term relationships.  This not only eases change efforts and mitigates inevitable conflict and resistance, it is personally enriching.
  • If you are in a mangement role, you have some measure of power to actually implement change.
  • You may enjoy the satisfaction of seeing the fruits of your labor over time, and experience the benefits of the change directly.

Some of the cons:

  • You may not be taken as seriously as you should, or would like — people with subject matter expertise that are hired into an organization instantly lose some degree of credibility (ironically).
  • You may be viewed by outsiders or other groups to whom you are loyal, as a sell-out, or suspect.  You may be forced to choose between loyalties if they are perceived as contradictory.
  • There will likely be limitations on your ability to be completely frank or honest or act freely — and if you do, you may be forced to leave the organization or institution.
  • If telling the truth means going against the grain,you may be engulfed or silenced by organizational politics or leadership.
  • You may lose your original perspective and commitment to “the cause” due to the osmosis effect of the organization’s culture.
  • You have more to lose (e.g. professional reputation, career advancement opportunities, and sometimes the job itself).

Working to create organizational, institutional or systemic change from the outside also has pros and cons.  I am thinking of “outsiders” as both professional external consultants, and also members of community/grassroots agencies or movements.  Some of the pros:

  • Your stance, speech, and actions can maintain some level of “purity” — you don’t have to constantly compromise, self-monitor or negotiate multiple loyalties.  Therefore, your loyalty is less often questioned and your connection to “the cause” stays stronger and clearer.
  • You may have the ability to motivate changes through direct action (like protests or some form of civil disobedience or other disruption) or political activity that would be unfeasible or unwise for internal people.
  • If you are an external subject matter expert or consultant, you will be taken more seriously than an internal person saying the same thing.
  • You can push limits and ask difficult, thoughtful questions more safely — for all parties.
  •  You may have less to lose — at least directly, concretely, and immediately.

Some of the cons:

  • You have virtually no power to change the actual decisions, policies, or behaviors of the organization or institution
  • You run the risk of being perceived as a threat to the organization or institution, and not only not heard or taken seriously, but targeted in efforts to neutralize, discredit or destroy you and your group

You might notice that the content and length of the various lists reflect my recent switch from internal to external change catalyst.  You may also find fault or exceptions with some of the above points, or argue that they are relative, and you may be right.  To clarify, l believe change can, and should, come from both within and without.  But I have learned that there are some key elements that need to be in place in order for internal change efforts to succeed.

  1. Sufficient support.  This sounds like a cliche, but this is where any internal change efforts succeed or fail, and it’s where they usually start.  Regardless of the reasons for the support, two things are needed: (1) a sufficiently-sized group of allies and internal supporters (who are willing and able to voice their support), and (2) buy-in and motivation from key individuals with authority and decision-making power.  Little can be done without both, and you may start with just one or the other.  But down the road, if you have allies but no leadership buy-in, the changes won’t get traction and may even cause or exacerbate conflict, tension, or political jockeying.  If you have buy-in but no allies, the change catalyst runs the risk of quick burnout.  S/he also runs the risk of becoming an isolated token of a change effort that accomplishes little to nothing, or of vulnerability to being held accountable for the success of the entire initiative.  Either situation is supremely frustrating for the individual, and may harm her credibility, reputation, and self-esteem.  It’s easier to swat one fly than a swarm.
  2. Sufficient resources.  This may sound like a no-brainer, but not only are resources like time, money and expertise necessary for change, an allocation of resources by the organization reflects an actual commitment in action — words and good intentions are not enough.  This support should be in both monetary and human resources.  It needs to be adequate and meaningful, not superficial or temporary.  Of course there may be no resources at all when you start out on your change journey, but they must eventually be forthcoming.  You need more than hope that they might come — a plan, potential sources, and/or the promise from an influential leader with integrity are important.  Without adequate resources, the change will not go far or last long, and internal change catalyst run the risk of tokenism and burnout.
  3. A culture amenable to change through effective leadership.  Change is rarely easy and in large organizations and institutions it is typically slow, messy, and complicated.  However, in an organization driven by fear, or characterized by conflicting or unclear values, low accountability, poor leadership, injustice, poor communication, or chronic crisis mode, it is close to impossible.  Aside from real commitment, creating successful change requires managers (and employees) with sufficient courage, integrity, leadership skills, creativity and effective communication skills.  It requires a commitment to fairness, consistent accountability, and long-term strategic planning.  It also requires a basic tolerance for ambiguity, risk, and conflict.  In short, leaders must lead — not manage — and model the desired change.
  4. A good fit for the change catalyst.  Being an internal change catalyst is demanding, and not a good fit for everyone.  Such a person should demonstrate the leadership qualities described above.  But they should also have patience — creating change in organizations takes years, not weeks or months.   It can also be rocky, unpredictable and non-linear, so they should be in it for the long haul.  They should be willing and able to invest in creating good relationships at multiple levels in the organization with key individuals and stakeholders, building alliances and buy-in.  They should be flexible — willing and able to rethink things, change direction, or switch tactics.  They should be highly professional, credible, organized, and on top of things — since they will be scrutinized.  They should be assertive but tactful — willing and able to speak up and speak out when necessary, including to higher authority figures.  Finally, they need to be a “critical lover” of the organization or institution.  Being a “lover” affords not only credibility and a bridge to others in the organization, it provides the catalyst with much-needed commitment, inspiration, energy and motivation to get through tough times and hang in there.  Being “critical” helps maintain focus on the change objective.  Someone who is a “company person” or blindly loyal “lover” will not be committed to change nor inspire it, and someone who is critical but not a lover will burn out quickly, and alienate others.  A critical lover comes at the reality of the organization or institution with a “both-and” orientation — that it’s important and does much good, but also does harm or falls short.

Of course life and change are rarely tidy, so the above may not always be clear, and may likely happen in a non-linear fashion.  Resources may appear before support or vice versa, and the culture or leadership may evolve along with the change initiative.  Words like “adequate” and “sufficient” are subjective and dependent on individual interpretations.  And “fit” for the individual change catalyst may evolve — they may become less of a critical lover, or burn out.  The following are some questions which may help an internal change catalyst determine …

Should I stay or should I go? 

  • Am I a “critical lover” of the organization?
  • Is the work or culture just difficult, or is is toxic?  Is it killing me or some precious aspect of me?
  • Do I have the qualities and relationships that will allow me to be effective?
  • Am I in it for the long haul?
  • Does the need of the community — or my external loyalty groups — for me to stay inside outweigh my need to leave?
  • Can I stay inside and still act with integrity?  Are the compromises and sacrifices I am asked to make acceptable?
  • Do I have sufficient support? Resources?
  • If “no” to support or resources, do I have more than hope that they are forthcoming?
  • Am I seeing, and celebrating, milestones of progress?
  • Does the joy of the work outweigh the pain?

I would say a “yes” to most of these is necessary to effect true change as an internal catalyst.  My answers were all “no” (except for #2 🙂 ), so I left.  I realized I was on the two-year change plan instead of the ten-year plan.  I was much more of a critic than a lover (I was working in healthcare and while never a huge fan of healthcare in general — preferring alternative wellness paths for myself — I became less of a fan after being inside).  Ultimately I did not have sufficient support or resources, the culture was toxic and I was unable to stay in integrity.  And while I had high hopes at first and there were promising signs, when it came down to it, the leadership proved to be lacking the necessary leadership skills to back up words with actions.

In his paradigm-shifting book, Love and Power: A Theory and Practice of Social Change, Adam Kahane quotes businessman and Buddhist teacher Michael Chender:

When you get very close to the heart of the system, that is when the devils will appear.  By devils I means the system’s autoimmune system.  If you aren’t prepared for this, then you will be overwhelmed, and your efforts to change the system will fail. (p. 68)

I failed to anticipate, plan for, and appreciate the devils — the inevitable conflicts and unconscious resistance that come when birthing change.  I lacked the patience and empathy, and found myself going into what the Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington (Washington Consulting Group and Social Justice Training Institute) calls the “enemy model” of thinking instead of the “energy model”, which views resistance as positive and necessary — an opportunity that provides energy for transformation, and is a sign that change is imminent.   While I have the ability to do what Washington recommends — engage, explore, welcome, listen, honor, embrace, and use such resistance — I lacked sufficient support, energy, motivation, joy and love to do so.

A final word about power, which is an essential and often unspoken aspect of change.  While there are many forms, at its most basic, power “is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.).  Even though an internal change catalyst may have more organizational and institutional power to implement change than an outsider, that internal person’s power is always on loan from the organization or institution.  It is granted with multiple conditions of loyalty, obedience, toeing the party line, and (often) maintaining the status quo, and it can be withdrawn quickly and easily.

Kahane again:

To lead means to step forward, to exceed one’s authority, to try to change the status quo, to exercise power, and such action is by definition  disruptive.  There is no way to change the status quo without discomforting those who are comfortable with the status quo. (p. 116).

Those inside an organization or institution are often quite comfortable with the status quo — that’s why they haven’t left.  They may or may not be aware of this, and may say they want change or even help out — until it becomes real.  When change starts to become real, and actions or stands need to be taken, even allies can shrink back, eveni f this is not their intention or conscious desire.  Change is uncertainty, ambiguity, and obsolescence of the old.  These are frightening.  If the shrinking allies have more organizational power than the catalyst, they have the option of stopping or reversing the change, enforcing the status quo, or punishing the catalyst.  Being an internal change catyalyst means always working within this reality.

The power one has within an organization to catalyze change is different from the power without.  Each locus has its pros and cons and different sources of power.  And since change is often a change in power relations, the conversation about power itself is an important one.

But I will save that conversation for the next post. 🙂

What do you think?  Is it easier or better to create change from within or without? What is your experience?

In lak ech!

~Jaxsine~

Land of the Free … ?

Yesterday was July 4th and I celebrated big.  As in BIG.  I had a party at my house that was very well-attended by a large, diverse group of interesting, bright, caring, talented people who enjoyed themselves and each other, and stayed later than they planned.  The occasion?  My freedom!  But not freedom in the “patriotic” sense;  rather, my liberation from traditional full-time employment last month, and the tenth anniversary of my arrival in my adopted home state — which also reprented liberation from my miserable, toxic, abusive marriage.

So what is freedom anyway?  Yesterday morning I went to work out, and as we left the small studio after class, one of the owners made a point to say numerous times in a loud voice things like “Yay for freedom!” and “be grateful to live in America where we are free!” and “Yay for democracy!”  This sentiment was generally met positively, with one lady pontificating in return about how grateful she is to live here and enjoy freedom instead in other parts of the world where “all they have is a bowl of rice.”

This really bothered me, and it seemed to also bother my companion, who was born and raised in a “third world” country.  When the co-owner said her “yay America” piece after us, all I could muster was a “we’re not the only ones [who are free].”  This left me feeling yucky.  I didn’t want to pretend I agreed with what she was saying and let her perspective go unchallenged, especially coming from a person in an authority position, but my response felt incomplete and flippant.

Now that I’ve thought about it, this is what I might have said instead:

I appreciate that you love the United States and are grateful for your life here.  I am curious though, what do you mean by “free”?

I think this is the key question.   What does it really mean when U.S. Americans say they are free?  It seems folks don’t always know — perhaps it just sounds good and they accept it as a truth since they’ve heard it since childhood.  Sometimes they say something like “I can do whatever I want” or “I can say whatever I want” or “I can worship whoever I want.”

But is this true?

To the folks who say they are proud to be an American because they can do whatever they want, I ask — do you have the freedom to live wherever you want?  How about the freedom to go wherever you want, including Cuba?  Do you have the freedom to go to school wherever you want, for as long as you want?  To not go to school at all?  To see a doctor when you need one?  To drive a car or fly a plane at age 14?  To drink alcohol at the same age you can vote and get married?  To only go to work when you want to?  To be able to survive by doing work you don’t hate — or even enjoy?  To follow your dreams with no fear of starving to death?  To obtain a loan or mortgage?  To eat food that has not been poisoned by pesticides or environmental toxins, nor genetically modified?  To have sex with whomever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want?  To terminate your pregnancy?  To dress however you please — or not at all?  To lay down in the park or on a meridian and take a nap anytime?  To not pay taxes if you don’t approve of the government?  To kill yourself by jumping off a bridge or building without the police trying to stop you?  To spend less and still live in a thriving economy?

The answer would likely be confusion or a no, followed by protests that you can’t do any of those things anywhere, that we need to earn certain things, that we need money, that there are rules based in human nature, that this is a stupid question, that it’s still better here than anywhere else.

Really?  Often folks with this mindset haven’t been outside the United States, nor had significant relationships with people outside of the United States.  If they did, or if they just did some critical reading and research, they would learn that on some of those questions, several countries (particularly in Europe) fare better than we do — particularly with regards to health care, social and geographic mobility, education, work, healthy food, and even equitable pay.

I remember the first time my sister visited me when I was living in Mexico for the second time.  I think she was 19 or 20, and we were driving through the streets of my beloved city one morning in a friend’s car, passing a city bus packed to the gills with a staggering number of people inside, and plastered by even more clinging to the outside.  She casually remarked: “Wow, people are really free here — free to hang off a bus clinging on for dear life with their butts hanging into traffic and no one will tell them not to.  They get to face their own consequences.  Back in the U.S. you can’t even step beyond the white line on the bus.”

So what is freedom?  Ok so what about the freedom to say whatever we want?  Do you have the freedom to speak your mind to your boss?  To your spouse or partner?  How would you be treated if you expressed an unpopular opinion (like a belief in UFOs, a talent for telekinesis, or support for a single payer healthcare system?) or lifestyle choice? How do you see folks that express unpopular opinions, ideas, and lifestyles get treated?  How diverse and balanced are the viewpoints you read in newsmedia, or on TV?  Are you free to talk about terrorism or participate in left-oriented political movements without being labeled or surveilled?

The answer is usually no, followed by a protest that it’s better here than elsewhere.  Are you certain?  Have you spent any significant amount of time in other countries to gauge this?

Granted, freedom to do or say doesn’t necessarily mean freedom to do or say without consequences.  And granted, in many ways we have more freedom of speech than in countries struggling with repressive governments.  But are the consequences for people’s choices of that to do and say the same everywhere?  Is it truly the freest in the United States?

And how about freedom to worship whoever we want?  Ask a Muslim about freedom of worship in the United States.  Ask a fundamentalist Christian, Mormon, pagan, Wiccan, or Scientologist.  Or an atheist.

This is the point at which I might be called “unpatriotic” or “anti-American” for raising these issues.  So I ask another key question — does being “pro-American” or “patriotic” mean I have to believe in the superiority of the United States over all other countries?  Does “loving” American mean I have to believe it’s the best country on earth?

Personally, I don’t think so.  As a progressive, I tire of being told my love of, and loyalty to, this country is measured by my level of unquestioning belief in the USA as the best, strongest, most righteous country on earth.  It’s not.  Look at the data.  Our educational system is one of the lower-performing of comparable nations.  Our healthcare system is more expensive and in many ways less effective than in many other nations.  Our political system increasingly lacks credibility and effectiveness.  Our financial institutions are increasingly unstable and corrupt.  The health of our population (including life expectancy and infant mortality rates), particularly in communities of color like urban African Americans and rural Native Americans, is worse than that of many “third world” nations.  We have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.  We have a wide (and widening) gap between rich and poor and a very high percentage of folks in poverty.  We have some of the highest rates of drug use and antidepressant use in the world.  A majority of us are unhappy with our work, and a lot of us are unhappy in general compared to other (even third world) countries.  Most of us are slaves to our jobs and to a material lifestyle we rarely question (just notice the tone, flavor, stress and obligations tied to the Holiday season).  And we are enslaved and controlled by corporate interests who limit our choices and prime us constantly to buy their products and consume to a level that is destroying our planet, and us.

In case you’re wondering, no, I don’t think the United States sucks.  I think we are good at innovation.  We are good at business and making money.  We are good at creating new technologies.  In some ways we are good at nurturing and supporting new ideas.  This is a good place to be a woman – especially a single, childfree woman over 40 like me.

But there are many countries that are as good as us in some things, and better than us in others.  There are countries where it’s easier to be a woman — economically and politically — than the U.S. (several countries are way ahead of us in terms of women in positions of political power, for instance, even in the “third world”).   There are countries that are much more supportive, financially and socially, of children, mothers and parents in general.  There are nations whose populations enjoy better health, better healthcare, better education, and more equity.  There are countries where it’s less devastating to fall ill, lose a job, or face major hardships — not just because of those nations’ social and economic programs, but because of cultural norms and more collective ways of being in community and supporting one another.

The danger of beating the “America rules!” drum is that beating that drum drowns out other voices and realities.  This narrowness and ignorance is dangerous.  We really aren’t the underdog of the American Revolution anymore, and we haven’t been since World War II.  The freedom the revolutionaries fought for in the 1770s is not the freedom we enjoy today.  In fact, movements similar to that of the revolutionaries are suppressed by our government — both here at home and abroad.  We are The Empire now.

The other danger of the drum is that it drowns out the truth of our history.  There has been plenty of ruthlessness, cruelty and dishonesty on our road to power and “freedom”.  We have invaded occupied lands, exterminated entire populations, enslaved people, raped and mutilated women, stolen land, stolen ideas, dishonored treaties and agreements, excluded whole populations from politial and economic participation, and manipulated political processes here and in other countries.

To me, love is not about blind admiration or pedestals.  It’s not about justifying ourselves by insisting on the perfection of our creation or object of our affection.  Love is about commitment. Love is about acceptance.  It’s about honesty and truth.  It’s about vulnerability.  It’s about growth and support.  It’s also about self-awareness, accountability, integrity, and healthy boundaries.  I don’t believe “loving” American means I have to believe it’s the best, strongest, most righteous country on earth any more than I have to believe a child (or person) is only lovable if s/he is perfect, without fault, and the best.  To truly love the USA is to look at it, see it for what it is, tell the truth about it, and help it be better.

This is what progressives try to do, at least the way I see it.  This may come across as “unpatriotic” only because it may feel threatening, or because I offer this additional perspective in an occasionally strident way as a counterbalance to the constant rhetoric about how great we are.  This is only part of the story, and America deserves for us to look at all of who she is, love her for who she really is, and help her be her best self.

And she is not being her best self right now, and neither are we.  In the USA when we talk about being “free”, I think we really mean “rich”.  This why we instantly refer to material situations like having more than a bowl of rice to eat, or allowing women to go to school or work as evidence of our freedom.  It’s not really freedom we are proud of, it’s our “American way of life” which is about our material wealth and ability to endlessly consume.   We consume, unaware, unbelieving, or uncaring that the lone daily “bowl of rice” some folks eat in other parts of the world (or other parts of the USA) is a direct consequence of our “way of life”.  I once heard a figure that if every person on earth lived like the average American we would need six additional Earths to provide the necessary resources.  This level of consumption is selfish, narrow-minded, short-sighted, abusive, and destructive.  This is not us being our best selves.

While gratitude in general is a positive way to approach life, the admonition to be grateful for what we have in the USA, and to appreciate how “fortunate” we are, absolves us of guilt or responsibility.   We don’t have what we do by magic or by accident.  We enjoy more than others because we take from others.  Those of us who experience more “freedom” (more wealth, more available life choices) often do because we are in the majority, or enjoy some form of privilege, or both.  We choose to be ignorant of the big picture, to not take responsibility for our contribution to this big picture, or to justify why we deserve more.

So what then is freedom, really, if not wealth or an abundant “way of life”?  My very fat dictionary says “state of being at liberty rather in confinement … exemption from external control, interference, regulation … power of determining one’s or its own actions …the power to make one’s own choices or decisions without constraint from within or without; autonomy; self-determination.”

So how free are you after all?  How do we experience more freedom?  Is it true that “freedom isn’t free”?

Freedom is a state of mind, a commitment, and a choice which manifests in action.  It is mindful, it is powerful and it is scary.  Choices have consequences, some more difficult to face than others.  Leaving my husband was one of the best, most difficult decisions I ever made.  Leaving traditional full-time employment was one of the messiest, most complicated decisions I’ve ever made – and after only a month I can already tell this was one of the most important, life-affirming choices I’ve ever made … and one of the most courageous.

But saying that “freedom isn’t free” — usually to justify military action — obscures the fact that the majority of our military action around the globe in the last few decades has nothing to do with liberating us from some oppressor (even though it’s framed that way so we’ll play along).  It has to do with securing our economic interests in other countries so we can continue to take more than our share of the world’s resources.  It has to do with ensuring the reign of our Empire — maybe because we are too terrified to imagine our lives liberated from the enslavement of material addiction.  The terrorist threats we face today are real, but they are not from a powerful oppressor.  They are from the rebel force, the freedom fighters, and the underdogs we still admire and identify with in stories and films.  But we have more in common now with the 18th century British Empire than the American Revolutionaries.  We have more in common with The Empire in Star Wars than the Rebel Alliance.

Since yesterday’s encounter at the gym, the line from that country song keeps running through my head: “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.”  Maybe that’s the heart of it all — many of us are unhappy, or frustrated, or struggling, but we calm ourselves and justify our choices by choosing to believe here is better anywhere else, and that this is as good as it gets.

Perhaps it’s time to declare our independence from unhappiness, ignorance, material addiction and low expectations!  Time to show up as our best selves … and help this country we love do the same!

What do you think? What does “freedom” mean to you and how can we experience more true freedom?

¡Paz, justicia y libertad!

~Jaxsine~

How to turn the Head Cheerleader into a High School Dropout (or How to Turn a Bright, Enthusiastic, Self-Motivated Employee into a Disgruntled One: A Guide for Managers)

This is a compilation of my own experience, and that of others I have witnessed or talked to over the last few years.  All of them happen to be women, thus the use of the female pronoun throughout.

Please contribute your own additions by commenting at the end!

  • Don’t give her a realistic picture of the challenges she is about to face in a new or expanded role
  • Transition her quickly into a new or expanded role with little preparation or handoff
  • When changing her reporting structure, do it by just letting her know, instead of in a meeting with all involved parties, with a clear and doable transition plan and timeline
  • Don’t praise her
  • If you do praise her, don’t be specific about what she has done that is praiseworthy — say something vague like “good job!”
  • Hold her to higher standards than her colleagues and rely on her to make up for her colleagues’ inadequacies instead of addressing her colleagues’ inadequacies
  • Hold her accountable for minor infractions or mistakes and ignore others’ major violations
  • Don’t appreciate her for working extra hours on her own or going above and beyond — don’t notice, or just take it for granted
  • Bury her in transactional minutia and the tedium of personnel problems — take away all time to think, study and create
  • Expect her to drop everything at a moment’s notice to please you or meet your priorities, without knowing what else she has going on in her business
  • Tell her what to do, and how
  • Treat her like a child — be a school marm, especially when it comes to things like her clothing, hair, or the appearance of her desk
  • Don’t trust her even though she hasn’t given any sign of untrustworthiness
  • Don’t give her help when she needs and wants it, but give her help when she doesn’t need it and hasn’t asked for it
  • Don’t obtain her the resources necessary for her to do a good (much less excellent) job
  • Say no instead of exploring reasons, pros and cons
  • Pay one of her newly-hired employees almost as much as her
  • Don’t give her feedback on what she can improve
  • If she asks for feedback or doubts her approach or skills, just say “you’re fine”
  • Don’t mentor her — let her learn by making mistakes
  • Don’t call her on inappropriate decisions or behaviors until it’s really bad or people are complaining
  • Punish her for being honest and taking ownership of her mistakes; reward others for not owning their mistakes, lying, or being passive-aggressive … by ignoring them
  • When she does something out of character or suddenly “acts out”, come down hard or discipline her without asking what is going on
  • Treat her like the enemy at the first sign of disagreement or hesitation to toe the party line
  • Take her decisions and mistakes personally
  • Undermine her authority — make decisions and take action without consulting or including her on things within her area of responsibility or expertise
  • Take away the things she loves the most about her job
  • Don’t back her up, especially when the stakes are high
  • Don’t stand up for her to colleagues who are bullies, in the wrong, or focused on the wrong priorities
  • Say good and promising words but don’t back them up with actions
  • Go back on your word
  • Be too overwhelmed and overworked yourself to give her the time and support she needs
  • Be reactive instead of proactive or strategic
  • Focus on profit and bottom line more than people and relationships
  • Focus on pleasing your colleagues or boss over pleasing the customer/patient/community
  • Don’t stand up for fairness and justice — cave to politics
  • Don’t use your power to stand up for good values, sanity, and positive change.  Allow fear to be your primary motivator
  • When she is upset or frustrated, tell her about your problems instead of listening and empathizing, or problem solving
  • When she comes to you with concerns about her job, and ideas for how to solve the problem, don’t do anything about it until she announces she is leaving
  • When she says she is unhappy, thinking of leaving, or has received a better offer, don’t ask “what can I do to change your mind or make you want to stay?”
  • Punish and attempt to discredit her when she’s finally had enough and actually leaves

What would you add to this list?  Please leave a response!

Ometeotl!

~Jaxsine~

Breaking the “r”ules: The Final Chapter

The moment finally arrived when I knew it was time to go.  I finally left an abusive marriage.  I finally exited the burning building, unable to see, let alone breathe.  I finally jumped out of the boiling water  That is to say — on Friday, June 1, 2012, I presented my New Boss with my resignation.  And on Tuesday, June 5th, the day of the Transition of Venus and following a new moon, she escorted me from the building with my personal effects at 11:30 a.m.

A lot happened in 12 weeks.  Let me catch you up.

We left off in the story where Beloved Boss presented me with a title change to make me stay (which by the way, I later learned came without a salary increase), then a three-day suspension for a nostril piercing after I removed the jewelry, then the withdrawal of the title change due to the discipline, then a change in reporting structure.  New Boss had been my peer and mentor, and the person ultimately in charge of the disastrous department I inherited a year ago.  I was starting to notice shortcomings in Beloved Boss and New Boss I had failed to see before, yet my faith in them — if not in the organization — remained intact.  At last writing, I believed Beloved Boss had my back and was fighting for me.

I was wrong.

So I was suspended without pay for three days the first week of April, just after being handed over to New Boss on April 1st in a hasty handoff that took even New Boss by surprise.  There was no joint meeting, no formal announcement, no clarification of expectations, no division of duties or planning.  I spent my unpaid days off cleaning, reflecting, and building my new business.  I decided not to accept the discipline unchallenged, and filed a three-page grievance letter on the last day I could file.  I laid out the timeline of events and cited the reasons I believed the suspension to be excessive and unfair: I took responsibility for my actions, others have not been disciplined at all for more serious violations (including of the same policies I had violated), I had indeed followed direct instructions, communication was unclear and inconsistent, and the additional circumstances surrounding the discipline (title change and withdrawal and change in reporting structure) were concerning.  I stated I had shared the events with select medical school and community leaders who were also concerned, and I asked to be paid for two of the three days and given the new title.

I emailed Beloved Boss to let her know I had submitted the grievance, expressing regret at any pain or disruption this would cause her, but stating I needed to do what was right for me and the future of my Office.  On the same day, I chaired a community meeting in which I let the group know of my new reporting structure.  The attendees expressed concerns about what this meant in terms of the future of the Office, my position, and the importance of our work.  I did my best to paint an optimistic picture without denying I also had questions.

Beloved Boss did not respond to my email, nor did I see her since she was no longer my boss, until two weeks later.  I thought our scheduled meeting was to provide me with a response to my grievance, and I was prepared.  I didn’t realize it was a hearing, and HR was there.

For this I was not prepared.  Thrown off guard, I collected my thoughts for a few seconds, and began by telling Beloved Boss what she meant to me.  How she had been my mentor, role model, big sister and friend.  How I didn’t want to report to anyone else in the organization  How this was painful for both of us.  I talked about how the HR process is antagonistic and dehumanizing — for everyone involved — and that although I was upset and the grievance was written as if it were directed towards her, I didn’t really know who I was upset with, or who I was grieving (the CEO? HR administration?).  She owned that it had all been her decisions.

This suprised and saddened me, given her sheepish, apologetic “they’re making me do this” demeanor in our previous conversations but I figured maybe she had to say this in front of HR.  I continued, laying out the basics of what I remembered from my grievance letter, since I hadn’t brought anything or anyone with me.  I still thought I was having a dialogue, and tried clarifying and asking questions.  The meeting turned into her grievance.  She was angry with me for calling the change in reporting a “demotion” and said going to the community was “a mistake”.  I told her I needed to get support and perspective and pointed out that at least I didn’t go within the organization — she said I had (the medical school folks).  She was angry about me making it look like she didn’t care or wasn’t committed.  I tried to explain the difference between intent and impact and that I wasn’t questioning intent, but that this decision can and will have negative impact. She was angry with me for suggesting she could have invited dialogue about my piercing instead of ignoring it or disciplining me, and she told me I should have had a dialogue with her before doing it — that there is a process.  I talked about processes not always working, and that sometimes people breaking rules is what causes change (I didn’t say this, but the Lovings just went and got married instead of spending years petitioning the courts to make interracial marriage legal, and Rosa Parks just “sat her Black ass down” [not my words] instead of heading for downtown Montgomery to lobby for equal seating on buses!).  I talked about leadership versus management and that I felt I demonstrated the former.  I didn’t tell her one of the reasons I didn’t tell her or consult with her beforehand was because I didn’t want to implicate her in a decision that was my own to make.

I could feel her, the situation, and our relationship passing through my fingers like sand that I tried to grasp as it followed gravity.  I talked about this sitation having a broader context that needed to be considered, like the context of inconsistent accountability in the organization.  She disagreed.  She said “no, this is about YOU.”  I talked about us having co-created the situation together.  She disagreed.  She said “this is on YOU.”

This was not the Beloved Boss I knew.  I don’t know why I said “thank you” when it was over and I left her office — for the last time I’d later learn.  The one thing that felt positive was her admitting that indeed the combination of the discipline, title change withdrawal and demotion “looked bad.”  But it will take me years to forget her face during that meeting — angry and wanting to yell at me, sad and close to tears, eyes full of disappointment and betrayal.  These were eyes that used to light up,  smile, laugh and bathe me in warmth.  I felt like my lover and I had just split after an ugly, avoidable quarrel.  I felt sad, disappointed, and shocked.  I hurt.  I doubted myself.  Had I done wrong after all? Was she right?

They (she) had two weeks to respond in writing to my grievance.  In the meantime, I was realizing that New Boss was not a good fit for me.  Her style was more controlling, mothering, and directive than I felt comfortable with.  I could see I was not going to be treated like a professional, and that we were going to end up having it out at some point.

I had set a goal to be out by July.  I felt that gave me enough time to be sufficiently prepared — psychologically and financially — to be out on by own.  Originally I’d been eyeing May when I told Beloved Boss in February I was planning to leave, but things had changed.  And now my goal each day was to avoid quitting.  Things had truly disintegrated.  The smoke was getting thicker and the water even hotter.

After hours on the day of the deadline, a Tuesday, I received an email from Beloved Boss requesting an extension to respond.  I said no problem and thank you.  I was heartened.  Maybe they needed extra time to do the necessary paperwork in HR to grant my request!

Or maybe they needed time for their lawyers to look things over first.  The following Monday May 14th, also after hours, I received the two-page written response.  Reading it made my abdomen tense up, my chest and arms turn icy hot, and my brain go numb.  Not only was my request denied, Beloved Boss asked me to “sincerely consider [my] ability to resume in a management capacity” given that my commitment to the organization had been affected.  She cited the fact I had communicated with people in the community about my discipline which “casted [sic] doubt on the [organization’s] commitment” to diversity, and the minutes from the aforementioned community meeting, which could be considered retaliation and grounds for future discipline.

How the hell did she get those minutes, which I had not sent out yet?

Bu that wasn’t all — the summary of the hearing, based on the notes she and the HR representative took — misconstrued my words and left out key points.  It stated I had taken no responsibility for my actions, and “continue to blame a ‘bad policy'”, which wasn’t true.

This was definitely a breakup letter.  It was definitely over.  I hurt all over again, and had a hard time grasping what was happening.  The emails and text messages flew.  I got support and indignation from my allies (“WHAT?!” and “they don’t have enough to fire you, get them to give you a nice severance package to shut you up”), but nothing soothed my heart.

On Wednesday I tried one more time.  I’d considered one colleague’s suggestion on how I could try negotiating a severance.  I didn’t believe that would fly, and the idea of me just carrying on with work if they refused me made my guts turn.  I clung to the idea that Beloved Boss had been unable to be real with me with the HR rep in our meeting — maybe she could be more of her old self if we didn’t have an audience!  Perhaps I could try a more “power with” tactic since going along with the “power over/against” process was not working nor feeling good for anyone.  I’m a mediator for Chrissake!  So I researched, then proposed we go to mediation.  I wrote her: “I feel like I’m not being heard or understood, and it seems you feel the same way.  Perhaps in a confidential, safe environment we can really talk to each other and come to some agreement on the best way to move forward.  Are you open to a mediation with me?”

She forwarded my email (to the lawyers? HR? CEO?) then responded she was “not interested in going through mediation” and said if I didn’t agree with the grievance, I could proceed to Step II.  Step II was to appeal to the CEO or HR Administrator.  I knew either would be as open and supportive as a brick wall on fire on the other side of a moat filled with demon alligators.  No thank you.

And so I pressed on, biding my time.  I contemplated getting a lawyer and realized this would take more out of me than the organization, even if I won, and I was not going to get what I really wanted — understanding and fairness.  In the meantime, Toxic Employee had filed another lengthy, detailed, crazy grievance against me for retaliation (I was still expecting her to work her full hours and follow rules).  Also, my performance evaluation date came and went.  New Boss said Beloved Boss (BB) was going to do it, and she was out that week.  New Boss said she had no doubt I would pass.  I doubted that was true.  I began to think maybe something who knew The Bigger Picture was loudly trying to tell me to leave, and maybe I should just listen.

I talked with my administrative assistant and New Boss about how ex-Beloved Boss (BB) had gotten a hold of those minutes.  My administrative assistant said New Boss (who she also supported) had asked her for them.  I explained why I was asking — that they had gotten to BB and were being used in an unhelpful way — and problem solved about how to handle the communication going forward.  When I talked to New Boss about it, it turned out she’d also wanted to discuss them with me, since she’d been listening to the tape (!?) and also had concerns.  I told her I hadn’t wanted to involved her in the situation between me and BB, but that my words were being misconstued and taken out of context.  I shared a little about my piercing and if I’m forced to choose between the organization and the community, and the organization and my integrity or reputation, I know where I stand.  I talked about BB not wanting to own her part, and that she’s angry because I’m not ashamed or afraid and I set boundaries.   I felt yucky being this honest, but it was good for me.  New Boss seemed to listen, and asked about my commitment and whether I could get on board.  I was flabbergasted that she was actually asking this question and thought I could be.  I said no, and that I would be leaving soon.  I told her that since I told her in December I’d started looking, I’d only stopped looking briefly when the title change emerged.  She thanked me for being honest.

It was Friday of the following week that I resigned and gave three weeks’ notice.  I still had not received my performance appraisal, and the retaliation grievance filed by Toxic Employee was still not resolved.  It felt like we had all been under water holding our breath in some twisted contest to see who would give, and I bobbed to the surface first.  That lungful of air felt so good to my lungs.

New Boss read the two-page letter and cried — she had seen me in my element and called me a “rockstar” just the day before.  She was most concerned about New Employee.  She was also concerned about how the community would react.  She wanted time to build a relationship with them, and to craft a message.  I asked who “community” was (I think she said local external contacts).  I agreed to her request to hold off on communicating my departure to them until she and I could meet again Tuesday morning.  I reminded her that some community folks already knew, since I’d been talking to them.  Yet again she thanked me for my honesty.

On Monday I sent an email to multiple national colleagues informing them of my imminent departure.  I included a line about having “revived my former company and will be pursuing client and projects that are a better fit for my talents.”  The email recipients included a listserv which BB was on — I knew this but didn’t think I was dong anything inappropriate.

On Tuesday I rolled into the office late after informing a crowd of 10-12 students in gray scrubs smoking not 15 feet from the entrance that they were too close to the building. I suggested that maybe no one had told them, pointed out the smoking area on yonder side of the parking lot, and quietly fumed over yet one more example of the insanity of the place.

I went into my meeting with New Boss at 9:30 with a one-and a half-page list of single spaced bullet points describing all the most crucial items to be discussed and handed off in my transition.  We talked a little about this and that for a few minutes.  I asked about how we should communicate my leaving to my staff.  She suggested I send an email that day.  I was surprised — shouldn’t we do a meeting?  No, she said, actually today would be my last day.

W … T … F???   Why wasn’t this the first thing we talked about?  Was she trying to get all the important transition information from me before telling me?

Apparently the email I’d sent the day before was “concerning” and “cast doubt on the commitment” of the organization.   Two people at the medical school were included on the listserv I’d copied.  Oh yeah.  I’d truly forgotten about that.  (But wait, aren’t medical school people considered part of the organization and not the community? That’s what BB said in my hearing.)

I did what I tend to do in these situations — freeze and caretake.  My mind started blanking out.  We decided to cancel a meeting I was supposed to chair that afternoon.  New Boss stuck her head out of her door to ask our administrative assistant to send out an email.  I thought that was odd, since I was going to do that as soon as I went to my office.  I talked about having to complete two employee performance appraisals.  She said she didn’t know what time my computer access would be shut down, so if I didn’t get to it, she’d pick up.

OMG!  I finally got it, this was happening! Now.

I asked her to put her offer to pay me through the period of my resignation in writing.  She said “you don’t trust me?”  (Really!?)  About halfway through my list she said her heart was racing (from the overwhelm) — not a good thing for a morbidly obese person.  I touched her and gently  said something I’d wanted to say to her for a long time: “You also deserve to be happy and healthy.”  Wiping away a tear, and without pausing, she said “I have two kids in college.”

Wow.

We’d agreed to meet again 1:00 to go over and visit the staff together.  As soon as I got to my office I executed Emergency Escape Plan.  I sent two emails I’d composed and been holding in “drafts” for weeks.  One to internal folks, one to external folks, saying goodbye and providing my contact information and website address (just activated the day before in fact).  On the external email I included the line about “better fit for my talents” and on the internal one I added “values” after “talents” and a line about “I find myself unable to effect meaningful change, or lead with integrity, given the organization’s current culture and priorities.”  I felt people had a right to get a personal goodbye and hear at least a tiny part of the truth. I didn’t want to leave people in the lurch or feeling abandoned.  I also composed an email to my staff, letting them know I was leaving and that the abruptness was not my preference.  I thanked them for this and that, wished them well, reminded them of the crucialness of their work and asked them to keep asking the tough questions and holding their leaders accountable.

New Boss appeared in my doorway.  I don’t remember what she said, but she was upset about the emails I’d sent (?!) — something about making her look bad.  I genuinely asked “why?” and she said “because I’m your boss!”  I threw up my hands and made a gesture like “what did you expect!?”.  She had me shut down my computer and pack up my things.  I was prepared — as part of Emergency Escape Plan I had been preparing to leave for weeks, just like I prepared to leave my ex-husband almost exactly ten years before.  Important files, my books, other effects, were already at home.  I had cleaned up my computer drives too, after those meeting minutes got to BB.  Now I just had one more bag to fill with my desk toys, and my artwork and lamps to take down.

I drove my car up; got in a few hugs to a couple bewildered staff; loaded up, handed over my badge, keys, pager, and parking permits; single-arm hugged New Boss — whose face was like a silent scream — and said “until we meet again.” I drove away, free.  By that time my computer and email access had already been revoked, and the emails I had sent had been retracted from those who hadn’t opened them yet (I have since sent a pile of messages from my personal email).  They tried to take away not only my leaving, but how I left and who I told.  But I was free.

***

I am going to be processing this story for a long time.  Even just writing it now has been difficult, and a rollercoaster of emotion.  It still doesn’t feel entirely real, and my fired-up brainstem hasn’t completely relaxed yet.  It’s almost like a dream.  I am relieved to be free of Toxic Employee and the majority of my job.  But I do miss some things.  I miss New Employee.  I miss structure.  I miss reliable money and power and my ego being stroked.  But these are things I can live without, and things that were twisting me anyway.  And New Employee and I will still be friends.

What is interesting and disturbing to me is how few people have been outraged by my story.  People who know my organization — or even work there — are sometimes slightly disappointed, but not surprised.  Others who don’t know my organization, but know the corporate world, often have their own, similar stories.  The normalcy of this is disturbing — the banality of evil rears its head once again (see post on The White Ribon 12/19/11).  I have been reading a couple wonderful books lately on power that I will be writing about soon and one of them — Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times — suggests that one thing that causes certain people to stand alone and do the “right” or “moral” thing (e.g., breaking the law and risking one’s life to save Jews during Nazism) is actually believing in the stated ideals of a nation or organization.  Perhaps it’s not naïveté or blind idealism that make me tend to believe that people and organizations and nations actually mean to be who they say they are, and hold them to that.  Maybe it’s just about integrity, and a good trait.  Perhaps belief is subversive when apathy is the norm, and numbness the new evil.  Perhaps we need more believers, and more outrage, and more feeling.

Still, I have learned a lot.  If I had it to do over again, I like to think I would have left earlier before it got ugly, or turned down the offer of the title change and stayed on a path out.  I like to think I could have done something to preserve the relationship with BB and leave on good terms.

And maybe things happened exactly the way they had to for me, and for her as well.  Who knows what repercussions this story will have on how things play out moving forward.  I hope me taking a stand pushes the organization and change forward, raises important questions, or inspires others to be better, happier, healthier, and more alive.

I learned that me taking a stand pushed some people away, and others towards me.  I learned I was not alone. I learned I was loved, respected, admired and appreciated even more than I knew.  I learned that when the warning signs start to appear, I should listen instead of bargaining and doubting myself.  I learned that when I’m not listening to the Universe, she starts to speak louder, then shouts and hits me with a 2×4 until I get it.   I learned that I really can’t avoid messes if I’m going to be true to myself more.  I learned I still have some control issues and self love issues to work on.  I learned I need to get in better touch with my anger, sooner.

I learned that in a hierarchical organization, the culture really is driven, and the tone set, by those above.  Despite my insistence on the power of individual agency, ultimately this is the truth.  In an organization headed by a numbers man who is devoutly Catholic, lacking in emotional intelligence, fearful and intolerant of anything perceived as criticism, this orientation trickles down.  New Boss was protecting BB who was protecting him.  Both were afraid and trying to protect their jobs.   BB was copying his pattern of maintaining a small, close inner circle of trusted and protected people who could do no wrong until their “loyalty” came into question — when their toes started pulling back from the party line.  Because I was in BB’s inner circle (of which I was not aware), I was seen as even more of a traitor and punished even more harshly than someone not as close or trusted — like White allies during Civil Rights and light skinned “half breeds” in Indian boarding schools.

Also, I’ve realized that in a hierarchical “power over” institution, those above are always under someone else, with Almighty God being the Ultimate Boss.  Fear, compliance and control are the drivers.  And in a “power over” paradigm all manifestations of power are interpreted through that lense.  So those who exercise other forms of power — like “power with”” or power within”– are not recognized as such, but as players in a “power over” game trying to win and dominate others.  In making decisions true to myself, being honest, and raising questions, I was perceived as trying to assert “power over” and therefore neutralized as a threat instead of being recognized and engaged.

But more on power later.

While this is the end of this particular saga, I don’t know that I’m quite a Jedi knight.  🙂   But I am happily “single” and safe.  I swim in healthy, comfortable water.  And I can breathe again.  Hallelujah.

What came up for you as you read this post?  Insights or feedback?

Ometéotl!

~Jaxsine~

Pain as an Unexpected Teacher

This past week, I finished a 12-week fitness challenge I entered into with a collection of other people at one of the places I work out.  At the celebration on Thursday, we partied and learned who won (the two who won “most pounds lost” and “most inches lost” were truly deserving and inspiring) and cheered each other on one last time.  It was nice to see everyone all fresh, clean, and dressed up!

I was pleased with how I did — I am definitely making progress towards my goals around muscle strength and definition — but finishing the challenge isn’t what I’m writing about today.  It’s about something I learned towards the beginning.

I started going to this new gym/studio in January after running into my former boss from my days teaching cardio kickboxing.  She looked great and was really happy with her new gig teaching fitness at this other place, so I decided to check it out.

I took her “barrefusion” class.  Barrefusion is a combination of ballet barre work, Pilates, callanetics, and the best torture methods invented by the CIA to make people talk.  I’m kidding only a little here. Using just our own body weight (or 1-2 pound weights for arms) we pushed every major muscle group to the point of burning, shaking fatigue … over and over … for an hour.  I thought I was in great shape before I took this class, taking smug satisfaction from regularly beating out people 20 years younger than me — of both sexes — in various athletic endeavors.  Now I was the one quivering, sweating, and grunting to hold a half pushup — after holding a plank for at least a minute, then going into pushups, then pulsing at another half pushup for ten reps.  I had discovered the unknown territory of “can’t”, my triceps on fire.  Meanwhile, the well-toned, well-off women around me  — some much older — were holding their own.

I have never been in so much pain voluntarily as I have in barrefusion class.  Not when running races, not when boxing, not when lifting weights, not when doing yoga, not when dancing (even when I injured myself) and not even when doing “no pain no gain” high-impact aerobics in the 80s.  Even some of my experiences with involuntary pain –a severely spasmed colon in high school comes to mind — pale in comparison to barrefusion.  Especially when it comes to working the quad muscles of the thighs in barrefusion, I have never felt such searing fire in my body.

And this is how pain came to teach me.  One day in class — yes, I kept going to barrefusion and even paid good money to do so! — we were working on our quads.  I was trying to manage going from a position where I hung from the barre in front of me, my legs at right angles with thighs perpendicular to the floor, then taking my seat all the way to the floor, then back to a right angle multiple times, then repeatedly pushing my pelvis and thighs up and forward to the barre while also raising my heels off the floor. I became fascinated by my pain.  I began to wonder why it was so awful.  Was my body giving me a message I needed to heed about my tissues getting ready to burst or tear?  Was my body in danger?  Was any part of me?

I suddenly realized I was not in danger.  I realized that the pain was so awful not only because of the physical sensation, but because I was afraid of it.  I was afraid (at an instinctual level) that my body was in danger.  I was also afraid of the damage I was doing to myself — that I would be so sore the next day I’d be unable to walk.  And I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to make it through the pain.  I was afraid I couldn’t do it.

Suddenly the pain shifted.  I realized the physical pain was being fueled by fear — including fear about a future that didn’t exist!  I found myself able to endure more than I thought I would, just by this realization.  And the next day I wasn’t even that sore.  My fears had been in vain.

I read about another woman’s similar experience with pain in a profound book by psychologist Kathleen Noble called The Sound of a Silver Horn: Reclaiming the Heroism in Contemporary Womens’ Lives.  One of the women profiled in the book, Melia, talks about the transformative power of pain she experienced during childbirth:

My first child was born without anesthesia…and there is a stage called transition in which you just think you’re going to lose it or die or something…The pain is so tremendous.  I remember feeling like I would snap or just start breaking things, or if I had a gun I would start shooting people because the pain was so intense.  I’d never felt that way before. But just when I thought I was snapping from the tremendous pain I switched to floating; I detached from the pain, I dissociated. It was a decision. It’s hard to remember when you’re in tremendous pain the power you have in just making the decision ‘I cannot take this anymore; I have to do something now to survive.’ … This didn’t involve the intellect … It involved the ability to make a decision…I was able to do this, to change an extremely negative experience into something very spiritual and empowering.  I really felt heroic afterward.  All my inferiority because I’m a woman left.  I could do this, I did this, I gave birth…Really, for the first time ever I felt equal  with [my husband].  Before, he was the doctor and I was his little nurse.  He was the man.  Now I was his equal.  It was really powerful. I always use that as my model now.  I know that everything I’m doing now is difficult, but not like childbirth.  Nothing. Everything else is minor to me.

I can relate.  I remember vividly how one of our challenge coaches, Lea — who has her own super-inspiring story about how she changed her health and life for the better — shouted at us one night during a grueling spinning (stationary biking) routine: “This is about being OK with suffering! It makes you stronger AND it gives you confidence from knowing that you CAN!”

Amen.  And yet we are usually given an opposite message, to the tune of: “This hurts! Make it stop! RIGHT! NOW!”  We are encouraged to end pain as quickly as possible — others’ as well as our own.  There’s a reason why; our reptilian brains are wired to pay acute attention to pain and resolve the problem as quickly as possible, which is a good, and evolutionarily advantageous response when it comes to physiological distress.  But perhaps not so advantageous when the situation goes beyond physiology.  Culturally we are encouraged to be comfortable and happy all the time.  While visiting the Labor and Delivery unit in the hospital where I work, I once remarked to the nursing manager about how suprisingly quiet it was, even though every bed was full.  Her response: “We do a very good job of pain management here.”

Removing all pain from our lives removes opportunities to grow, to triumph, to learn of what we are capable, and to find our inner s/hero.  In fact, pain is a feature of what author Dan Pink calls the drive to mastery.  In his eye-opening book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink identifies mastery —  the desire to get better and better at something that matters — as one of the three key elements of intrinsic motivation.  And, as he puts it, “mastery is a pain.”  He writes. “Mastery — of sports, music, business — requires effort (difficult, painful, excruciating, all-consuming effort) over a long time (not a week or a month, but a decade).”  And, he continues, effort gives meaning to life.

Once again I realize I have been lazy and didn’t know it.  One of the weaknesses of being better than average (smarter, stronger, healthier, richer etc.) is that we don’t often learn how to learn.  We don’t learn about the payoff involved in sustained effort because so many things come easy.  I realized I have been singing the same tune I sometimes criticize others for singing — “I can’t because of my DNA”, or “it just doesn’t work for me”, or “I’m different”.  I was wrong.  I have been humbled by people like my friend “M” whose fierce commitment and tremendous discipline, even in the face of negative family pressure and financial limitations, have enabled her to completely transform her diet and her body in the last eight months to the point of being ready to run a 5K race with me in two weeks.  And now I, too, am seeing the results of my pain  — muscles I believed were just genetically weak or getting old are now much stronger, and visibly larger.  And all because I worked at it — really hard.

I was telling a work colleague some weeks ago about participating in the challenge and about how excruciatingly painful some of my workouts were.  Over her salad and stuffed halibut she leaned towards me and asked, “Well, why the heck do you do it, then?” I paused in my reply then, but now can say with more confidence that it helps me grow, it gets results, and it teaches me important lessons about life and about myself.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that not all pain is equal and that pain can also teach the power of discernment.  The pain of bone cancer is not the same as the pain of childbirth.  The pain of someone sawing off my leg to torture me is not the same as someone sawing off my leg to remove life-threatening infection and gangrene.  Perhaps one might approach them similarly from a spiritual perspective, but the different contexts might call for different responses.

Spiritual teacher Thomas Hübl talks about the difference between “creative friction”, which pushes us to our limits and allows us to take a step and grow, and “destructive friction” which is stuck, heavy, and limiting, like a swamp:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vCsBeVVshFU

I believe friction is a form of pain, and gaining the ability to discern whether a certain discomfort (friction, pain, etc.) has creative, generative power or destructive power is essential to growth and happiness.  Some of us shun all pain entirely while some of us seem to be addicted to it.  I have shunned most physical pain until now, but in the past I was addicted to emotional pain.  I equated emotional pain of any kind as normal, necessary, or adding value to a relationship.  I no longer believe this to be true, as I now recognize the difference between the not-OK pain of hearing abusive belittling and the OK discomfort involved in receiving loving feedback, for example.

Discerning between generative pain and destructive pain is as important to living a rich life and fulfilling one’s potential, as learning to endure generative pain.   As the saying “your current safe boundaries were once unknown frontiers” implies, growth requires courage — and pain.  But knowing one’s limits and being self-compassionate is vital as well.  I am a much tougher cookie now than when I started the fitness challenge in January, but there are days when my quads just need me to back off a little.  I listen.  After all, I’m in this for the long haul and I need to nurture my relationship with my one constant companion – me!

Find a place inside where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain. ~Joseph Campbell~

What has pain taught you?  Please share a comment below!

In lak ech!

~Jaxsine!

Knowing when to leave

It’s all right, honey. Let her go. Let her go. You know, Miss Ruth was a lady. And a lady  always knows when to leave.

This is one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite movies, Fried Green Tomatoes.  Sipsey utters these lines at the moment the saintly kind-hearted Ruth dies, leaving Idgie alone again.  It usually makes me bawl.

But it has also made me wonder, for years, how to know when to leave.  How do I not possess Ruth’s grace and wisdom?  The truth is, it’s a tough call to make, especially if one of your virtues/flaws is to focus on the good instead of the bad, despite greater quantity or proportion of the latter.  The truth is also that I usually stay too long.

I have already shared the story of when I knew my bad marriage wasn’t going to get better (12/14/11 post).  The months that followed were a terrifying gift of staying in a dangerous, destructive relationship while quietly planning my escape.  It was excruciating not being fully able to speak the truth or leave, but the blessing was getting almost daily validation of why I had to get out.  It made my final exit less conflicted.

I feel like that now, but unlike with my marriage, I don’t have a specific deadline to rely on.  Towards the end of my marriage, I had graduate school in another state to plan for and provide an escape.  This time, with my job, it’s not so concrete.

But there are lots of parallels between the two.  How is my current bad job situation like my previous bad marriage situation?

  • I got what I said I wanted — but I wasn’t thinking carefully through  the long term requirements or commitment.
  • I didn’t want to tell myself, or anyone else, the truth about my feelings.
  • Once I finally started talking, however, I got understanding and empathy from others.
  • All it takes is one really bad day to make me want to leave — my loyalty and overall satisfaction are that fragile.
  • All it takes is one decent day to make me think it’s not so bad or it’s finally getting better … until the awfulness starts again and I realize the good day was just a respite.
  • There’s very little joy.  Good days are about the absence of significant conflict or drama, and satisfaction from having completed a certain number of tasks.
  • I give more than the other.  The other can’t, or isn’t ready or able, to change or give more.

I have been aware of these ironic parallels for some time, but recently I have had two additional realizations (which are also like what happened in my marriage).  One — those I loved are either changing or I am seeing them more clearly.  Two — I am changing too, and I don’t like what I am becoming.

My first inkling of changes or shattered illusions began when my colleagues didn’t say anything about my nose piercing.  Then my Beloved Boss didn’t say anything.  Then she came down hard on me, and later expressed feeling awkward about bringing it up — a management 101 skill in my book.  Then she suddenly offered me the one thing I always wanted, when I was already halfway out the door.  Then she got on one of my colleagues (my soon-to-be New Boss) about something I was working on instead of asking me about it, which was a new experience for me with her.

Meanwhile, my soon-to-be New Boss scheduled a meeting with me which I discovered (in the meeting) was about clearing the air about a few things before she became my boss (as if we could be completely honest and ignore the impending power shift).  I was completely unaware of her concerns, one of which was thinking I needed something from her when my Beloved Boss was getting on her about the aforementioned project I was working on.  (I still don’t entirely get that one.)

Another of her concerns was that something I told Toxic Employee got back to her (why did I trust Toxic Employee with that?).  I’m still not sure I shouldn’t have told Toxic Employee what I did, because I still believe soon-to-be New Boss made a bad decision and set me (or whoever would come after her) up for failure by not being honest with Toxic Employee about her poor performance.  I didn’t tell Toxic Employee the truth, even though I wanted to very badly, but I did imply her previous bosses hadn’t been entirely honest with her.  I was trying to give her a bigger picture that painted me as less the lone bad guy out to get her, and more the person trying to deal with a tough situation and do the right thing.  I was trying to show fairness and empathy with her shock and indignation, since she had been led to believe she had been a stellar employee for ten years until I came around.  The illusion she had been sold was hurting both of us — and the entire department — and I was trying yet another way to give perspective and make things better.  I guess it didn’t work, and she told soon-to-be New Boss what I’d said, with her own spin.

I received a message almost two years ago that “leadership is more than what most of the leaders around you, even the good ones, are doing.”  I couldn’t fathom this at the time because I adored Beloved Boss and soon-to-be New Boss (one of my mentors), but now I get it.  The two people I have most loved, trusted, and respected at work are not entirely the great leaders I thought they were.

I suddenly see The Matrix before me.  Beloved Boss contributes to The Problem.  She hasn’t always been direct with me about what she has needed from me, or in asking me to change or do something differently.  She didn’t go to bat for me when it mattered until it was too late.  She said yes to being given more and more responsibility for projects and functions outside her purview — with no title change or extra compensation, and to an extent that will hurt her other areas.  She allows her competence and skill to be exploited to make up for others’ (mostly men’s) incompetence and lack of planning.  She exploits soon-to-be New Boss’s competence and responsiveness instead of holding her colleagues accountable.  She sometimes says yes when she should say no — or sometimes she says nothing, which is the same as yes.

Soon-to-be New Boss also contributes to The Problem.  She allowed gross neglect and incompetence to go on for years in the area I inherited because she never had reason for concern (and I guess never had reason to even check).  She also allows her competence and skill to be exploited to make up for others’ under-functioning.  She enables her reports’ incompetence and irresponsibility by taking on their decisions for them and keeping their failures from showing (which keeps her from looking bad, but does not lead to growth or efficiency).  She doesn’t understand why our sister organizations say they don’t want to be like us.  She also says yes sometimes, when she should say no.

Both of these women have been in the organization for about 25 years.  They are outstanding people — and part of The Solution — but I now see they have not been immune to their environment.  They have grown up in a dysfunctional culture and have a tolerance for things they wouldn’t otherwise.  They don’t know any different.  Both allow their priorities to be manipulated by the latest regulatory freakout or demand from a superior without questioning or taking a stand (it seems).   Both appear to make pleasing their bosses top priority always, despite what suffers as a result.  Both allow themselves to be handed an impossible amount of work, which keeps them in a perpetual state of overwhelm, attending primarily to ugliness and urgent problems instead of mindfully building and nuturing people and programs.  Reaction over prevention isn’t their personal preference, but it is the reality of how they operate.

And both have told me my standards are (too) high.  My standards are not too high, I believe they are reasonable and good.  I don’t think keeping employee files locked up, doing decent performance evaluations, keeping accurate records, answering emails within a couple days, confronting problems head on and keeping one’s word are unreasonable standards, they are part of The Solution.   Perhaps I am like the frog put into boiling water — I jump right out when I sense right away it’s too hot and dangerous.  They are like the frogs put in water that has slowly been heated (over 25 years), and now they are (un)happily boiling to death.

Illusions are deadly — deciding someone or something is bad keeps us from seeing goodness, and deciding someone or something is good keeps us from seeing faults and failings.  Neither is fair or accurate.   Seeing through illusions can be painful and costly; now that I am seeing the Matrix, I feel more vulnerable and alone, without allies.  I see again my own failing to be entirely balanced in my assessment of people, tending instead to either blindly trust or entirely write off — like I did with my ex-husband (first the former tendency, then the latter).  It’s almost amusing how I fall prey to the same dichotomous either-or thinking I often rail against.

And hope can be dangerous.  Hope enables human beings to survive horrible circumstances and overcome tremendous odds.  But it can also keep us stuck in an illusion.  Holding on to the flickering possibility of change or good can keep us trapped in something mostly bad. This is tempting, since nothing is ever all good or all bad.  Holding on can lead to genius or breakthrough or triumph, but it can also lead to disaster and ruin and tragic waste.

Perhaps my doubts about knowing when to leave are really about my fear of being wrong.  I can stay and see things stay bad or get worse, and then I will be wrong about staying.  Or I can leave and see things improve, and then I will be wrong about leaving.  I just can’t know what will happen.

What I do know is I should not make choices counting on certain outcomes.  Besides, me making the choice and taking action changes the outcome — my decision shapes the future.  What I also know is that I do not like how I am changing, and what I have become.  I’ve noticed I’m not really a frog jumping out of the boiling water — I’m trying to swim in it, and my delicate skin is burning.

The fact that I would consider lying to get a coveted job title is not a good sign.  The fact I would violate confidence and tell Toxic Employee that soon-to-be New Boss wasn’t honest with her is not a good sign.  The chronic bags under my eyes that defy all beauty remedies are not a good sign.  My exhaustion even after only working eight hours is not a good sign.  It’s not a good sign that I have actually uttered the words “I hate my job” more than once.  The other things I hear coming out of my mouth to one of my new employees is not a good sign.  The subtle negativity, the undertone of anger, the ultra-political sensitivities and cautious maneuvering — these are not good signs.

In two months, New Employee has been showered with the appreciation, curious inquiries, and positive responses I have yet to receive in 18 months in my new role.  I recently read over the many wonderful comments I used to get all the time when I was doing what I love and am truly gifted in doing.  I remembered what it was like, and saw even more clearly when I compared myself to New Employee, that my unhappiness and lack of fit isn’t just hurting me — it’s hurting my effectiveness, and my ability to create positive change.

If everything we do is truly infused with the consciousness with which we do it, then me staying and forcing myself to make potentially positive changes in the organization is likely being cancelled out by my attitude and how I go about things.  Maybe I have taken von Goethe’s advice — “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them to become what they are capable of being” — too much to heart.  Maybe I really am going too much against the grain, pushing too hard, or expecting too much.

In this way I still wonder, is it me, or the organization?  Can I still do good?  Is there sufficient hope?  I was curious to find some rational data — some objective evidence to provide some clarity or insight.  So I looked up “dysfunction” in the dictionary to see if my organization qualified.  The dictionary said “malfunctioning”, so I looked up “functional.”  The second definition was “having or serving a utilitarian purpose; capable of serving the purpose for which it was designed.”  This seemed like a good definition, but it struck me that folks in my organization would disagree about the proper definitions of “utilitarian”, “capable” and especially “purpose.”  Personally, I see multiple examples every day of how the organization is not serving its purpose, and lack of clarity around what (whose!) purpose it was/is really designed for.

Maybe the key word is “capable”?  Maybe my standards are too high and my expectations unrealistic in this environment.  And maybe I just don’t agree that the status quo is the best we can do.  Maybe I can still see that things don’t have to be the way they are — that there is A Solution (probably more than one).  Maybe I believe we can actually change things — that A Solution is doable.

And maybe my beliefs are moot.  Just like I believed my now ex-husband was capable of change, he just wasn’t willing or able.  And I got to a point where I realized I wasn’t willing or able to function inside that reality anymore — regardless of how that reality might be viewed or labeled by others, and regardless of how hard I tried.   And while that point is coming again, it doesn’t feel like it’s fully arrived.

So when should I leave?  Perhaps like Ruth, I will know when it’s time.

In lak ech,

~Jaxsine~

She (finally) brought me flowers

Three weeks ago at work, I was offered something I’d asked for more than once over the last several months.  A new title.

This may seem like a minor detail, but the truth is it matters to me.  It matters to me because I have been doing a job equivalent to those with the higher title in my organization.  It matters to me because I deserve it.  It matters to me because I don’t want to be one more woman who sells herself short or accepts less than she has earned in the workplace.  And it matters to me because titles make a difference in my organization.  I wish it weren’t true, but it is, and a higher title that better reflects the reach and importance of what I do is one more way to lend legitimacy to the Office I have created.

But it was bittersweet.  I had asked my Beloved Boss for this title before, making it clear I didn’t need or want a raise in pay, but that the title meant a lot to me.  And she finally offered it to me during the same meeting where I explained about my piercing and apologized for how I realized my choice had affected her (see Breaking the rules — Part III post on 2/27/12).  She said the title change “had finally come through” and that she could offer it to me if I stayed.  If I didn’t stay, I would keep my current title and the job would be posted in the new title for the next person.

WTF.

I’m not very good in interpersonal crises.  When it comes to an earthquake, natural disaster, or other physical threat, you definitely want me around with my level head, clear thinking and assertive responses.  But when I am confronted with a relational problem, I usually either go into empathize-with-the-other mode, or I freeze.

So in the moment I said I understood and would think about it, but later it didn’t make sense.  Why, as one of the most powerful people in the organization, “couldn’t” she change my title if I still planned to leave?  Why did it “finally” come through, right after I said I was leaving and was being called on the carpet for having a nose piercing?

And why did my HR recruiter, when I spoke to her later by phone about something else, express sympathy about me leaving?  I was suprised and alarmed.  I asked how she knew, and she said “I work in HR.”

WTF?

It started to dawn on me that my Beloved Boss might not have been entirely honest with me.  My new title hadn’t suddenly come through, she had pushed it through to keep me.  And she was using the one thing I wanted to entice me to stay.

So the fact I am unhappy and the job isn’t a fit don’t matter.  The two conversations I had with her last fall about getting close to reaching my limits and needing help hadn’t mattered.  She had waited until I was done and walking out the door to try and retain me.  And she offered me money and power instead of a solution to the problem.

Not only that, she also told me that she would likely be handing me off to one of her other reports — one of my peers (but with an even higher title than me) who had been my mentor.  She just couldn’t manage with some new responsibilities she had been given from higher ups, and had to delegate.  Soon-to-be New Boss is one of the few people I respect and trust, but also one of the most overwhelmed and overworked people in the organization, and the person who had been ultimately responsible for the (severely neglected and chaotic) department I had inherited last summer.

So one hand giveth and the other taketh away.  I was offered the title I always wanted on a condition of staying in a job I had made clear was a bad fit and making me miserable and ill.  And I was being told I would no longer report to my Beloved Boss, who was one of the three things I liked about my job, and she knew it.

So now I had a dilemma.  Do I stick with my integrity and leave anyway?  Or do I stay when I don’t want to, to get what I wanted and deserved?  Stewing over this dichotomy as I got into the shower that night, I asked myself indignantly, “How would they know, if I said I’m staying, that I actually will?  I could be lying to them to get what I want!”  And then I realized this was a third option.

I was troubled that I even considered this to be a viable possibility.  One part of me counseled me to rise above, to take the high road, to focus on the spiritual and what’s truly important in life — getting out despite what I might lose in the process.  It encouraged me to let the petty issue of the title go.  But another part of me — the freedom fighter and suffragette — reminded me that countless oppressed people have used that approach to accept defeat and less than they earned, and feel like good, righteous people for doing so.

Oh HELL to the no!!

So I thought about what I could do and say to get what I wanted and earned, yet stay in integrity.  I wasn’t willing to compromise integrity; I don’t believe in selling my soul to play The Game.  I wondered about a middle way — a third option besides “OK I’ll take it and stay — you win” or “take this job and shove it — I win, your loss … suckas!”?

As before, I enjoyed the brainstorming help of a smart, trusted friend and came up with a plan.  The following week I met with my Beloved Boss and told her I’d thought about it, and I appreciated the offer and confidence the organization had in me.  I talked about how this title will make a difference for the program, regardless of who has it.  I said I didn’t know how I would feel moving forward, but that I had faith the new title and the hiring of a supervisor to help me out would make a difference.  I said I could say for sure that I am willing to give it a try, and that having the new title would keep me longer than I would have stayed without it.  If that was acceptable to her, than I would accept.

She said that was acceptable.  She said one never knows, and I would have to do what was in my heart.  She was glad I was staying.

She brought me flowers, and I put them in water in a vase.  I wonder how long they’ll last.

***

POST SCRIPT

Since I originally wrote this piece a few days ago, I have been presented with a written proposal to suspend me for three days without pay because of the nostril piercing.  (When I accepted the offer of the new title, I was told no disciplinary action would be taken if I were leaving, but since I was staying, a verbal warning would suffice.)  Oh … and the new title is being withheld for now, pending the outcome of the proposed disciplinary action.  Leaders who are being disciplined should not be rewarded, of course.

Beloved Boss is fighting for me and has my back on this one, but … the flowers are wilting …

In lak ech,

~Jaxsine~

Househunting is like Dating …

So today is 3-9-12, which is a supercool date.  On top of that, yesterday was International Women’s Day (woot woot!) … and a Full Moon (how’s that for some serious female mojo!).  And today I signed the refinance paperwork on my mortgage.

This is noteworthy not only because I now have a 4.0% interest rate (!!??), but also because, even after being a homeowner for over 5 years, the historical significance of being a single woman who owns property by herself, with no help from anyone except a generous employer in a socially acceptable industry :), is not lost on me.  When I bought my house and signed my first mortgage paperwork in 2006, I could feel my mother and grandmother and many other female ancestors there with me, proudly looking on like so many signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Not long after, I wrote the following essay.  The housing market crashed within a few months, so I figured trying to publish it would likely be futile.  But all things happen in their own time, so here I present to you:

Househunting is like dating … or “How finding the right home is like finding the right partner”

Be ready for the hunt.

You have to be serious, and willing to invest the necessary time, energy, and money.

Do your homework.  Learn as much as you can about the process before you start.

Talk to people, especially girlfriends, that have had a successful hunt and are happy with their catch.  Listen to their advice, but know your experience will be unique.

Decide why you are hunting – is this a long term investment? A place to nest? A temporary place to sleep? A way to make some fast money? Will you be here long or not? Will there be children? Parties? Lazy afternoons together? Everyone has different motives, …and yours may change in time.

It’s important to know what you want BEFORE you start hunting so you can focus, and not waste your time or that of anyone helping you.

But… sometimes it’s good to explore and look around casually before you get serious, so you get a better sense of what you want.

And … know that what you want may change during the hunt.

Learn to communicate what you want clearly to anyone helping you with the hunt.

Use your head

Success has a lot to do with timing and what’s available when and where you are hunting.

Know how much you are willing to spend and invest.  Don’t get in over your head!

Have a list of must-haves and nice-to-haves.  Don’t compromise on the must haves.

Listen to past mistakes.  If in the past you have settled too quickly out of being tired or thinking you might not find something better, don’t!

Learn from every one you see or go inside.  You will get a better idea of what you like and don’t like, the lighting, decoration tips, things you may not have thought of before.

Check the foundation.  Check the plumbing.  Check the heating and cooling systems.  Are the surroundings safe?

Note that the time of day you see it can make a difference.  Check it out at difference times of day to see who’s hanging around and what the neighborhood is like at night on weekends.

Always get inspections done before you close the deal!

Don’t beg.  Don’t bid too high out of fear of losing.  Be clear on how much you’re willing and able to give.  Be open to negotiation. Be fair and not greedy … but be willing to give more than you expected.

Listen to advice, but make your own decisions.

Sometimes you need to change your search tactics, or get a new person on your team to help you hunt.

Have faith and hope

Understand that this is as much about heart as it is mind – let the magic happen.

Listen to people who tell you when you find the right one you will “know”.

The hunt is scary!  It can be exciting, exasperating, discouraging, exhausting!

Stick to what YOU want, since you have to live with your catch!

Don’t let anyone intimidate, guilt, or talk you into one you don’t want.

Don’t let anyone discourage you from going for the one you DO want, in your heart.

You may be disappointed.  You may make an offer that is rejected in favor of someone else’s.

It’s hard to get your hopes up and get excited, thinking this is the one, and then it doesn’t work out.

Try not to pine after the one that got away.  Try to avoid driving by and gazing longingly at “yours”, with the “sold” sign on it.

Trust that the right one will come along, and have faith that you lost the ones you did for a reason.

Be sure you have a great support system!

Be sure you have a kind but savvy advocate!

Don’t get out of the game too soon –  hold out for the right one, but also know when to take a break, or even when to quit.

Sometimes you’ll wonder whether you’re really ready for your dreams to come true, whether you’re ready for the responsibility.

Enjoy the hunt!  Stay present, focused, and kind!

Some of us take longer to recover from loss, rejection and disappointment.  There’s nothing wrong with you!

Be ready – it can happen at any time!  Be aware, and flexible.

Don’t accept the one in front of you because you’re afraid you won’t find another one better, but because you know you won’t find one better.

You’ll feel/know it when you’ve made a good decision.

Some of us fall harder and deeper than others.  Some of us need time to mourn and recover.

Sometimes prayer doesn’t work, unless you pray for the right thing to happen.

Hearing “no” is hard.

Sometimes it’s good to get back out there ASAP to see there are other options.

Trust that there are others, that it’s not the end of the world.  Don’t lower your standards.

For a while it may seem like none are as good as the one we lost.  That passes.

The search can be long and discouraging.  You may get tired.  You may need to give up or take a break for a while.

Opportunities present themselves at any time, out of nowhere. Be ready!

Sometimes the one that got away gives you a standard to shoot for, a vision to dream about.

Have courage

Be patient – the hunt may take a LONG time. Hold out for what you want.

Sometimes you will be the only one who understands what you are looking for.

Some aren’t as great as you imagined after you move in.

You will ALWAYS discover something extra after you move in – both flaws and delightful quirks.

The one that got away might haunt you, but hang in there!

Be ready to work

Sometimes you may have to clean up after the previous owner and spruce things up.

Some have been so neglected or abused by previous occupants that it’s hard to see the potential and beauty.

And … Strike a balance between seeing potential and noticing the reality.

Decide how much time and money you want to invest in repairs and decoration – do you mind a fixer upper?

No matter what, when you find the one you want, it will still need some fixing up or just some ol’ fashioned acceptance.  It will not be perfect.

Be grateful

Sometimes you don’t appreciate what you’ve found until you’ve lost a couple good ones and regretted it.

You appreciate a good one more when you’ve seen lots of bad ones!

Listen to your heart.  Trust your instincts.

Sometimes it looks good on paper or in the ad, but when you see it you don’t want to go inside.

Sometimes they don’t look good on paper but are charming when you see them.

Sometimes the outside looks nice but the inside is in bad shape.

Sometimes the outside isn’t so great but the inside is clean, well-cared for, and cozy.

Sometimes you find one you want to love and think you “should” love, but you just don’t.  Don’t force the heart.

Don’t pass up the old ones just because they’re old – they often have a lot of character and charm to offer.

Listen to your heart.  It may fit everything on your list, but do you love it?  Can you love it?

You may see some that are out of your range, but it’s still fun to peek in the windows!

But … Do a drive by before you peek in the windows.  Peek in the windows before you go inside.  Consider bringing a friend or an advocate.

Sometimes talking to the present or previous owner yields helpful information.  Sometimes it’s just a turn off and not helpful.

It’s hard to get a sense of a place when there are occupants and their things inside.

If you don’t feel at home when you go inside, it’s not meant for you.

If it feels like someone else’s, and not yours, it’s not meant for you.

There may be some you appreciate or admire very much, but they’re not for you.

Remember there are some things that can be changed or modified, but some that can’t.

Be appreciative of those supporting and advocating for you, but be more concerned about not disappointing yourself.

When you’re in love, you forget the things that initially weren’t how you liked or what you expected.  Remembering those things can help you get over heartbreak.

You may fall in love with unexpected things you hadn’t thought of or hoped for.

It will only work if they love you back.  No matter how much you want or love, if it’s not mutual, it won’t work out well.

When you find it, it may not look like the picture in your head, but you’ll still recognize it.

Know the difference between what you need and what you want.

When you find The One, move heaven and earth to get it.

Inspect carefully before you buy.

Have plans for changes, updates, personal touches but if you want to change it too much, it’s not for you.

You may find yourself wandering back to check out the one you lost.  That’s OK as long as you look from the curb.

The one who ended up with the one that got away may not be taking care of the one that got away as well as you would have.  Their loss!  That doesn’t mean that destiny or history is cruel.

Timing is essential.

Things you didn’t like at first may end up being exactly what you wanted or needed in the end!

You will eventually realize that the one(s) that got away were actually not as perfect as the one you got, and you got a great deal on it to boot!

Someone nearby may have one very similar to yours and fix it up real nice and new, but somehow it’s still not as great as yours and still doesn’t feel like home.

Finally …

Finding the one is only the start of the journey!

I haven’t yet met my Beloved, but I still love my house! 🙂

Paz, amor … ¡y arriba las mujeres!

~Jaxsine~

The Meaning of Life

Who would you be today if you had not been wounded?

This is one of the questions posted on my bedroom wall by the door on one of many pieces of paper taped around my house in strategic locations to help me with my ongoing visioning.  This question came to me when I realized a few weeks ago with a start that my entire professional life is founded on my wounding.  I have dedicated well over 20 years to helping others deal more effectively and kindly with diversity, difference, oppression, and marginalization — the various “isms”.  I have spent countless hours learning how to communicate more effectively — and not only in English — and teaching others to do the same.

All of this is rooted in my own early childhood — and ongoing — wounding.  I now have a word for this wounding, thanks to a new therapist gifted in the somatic healing arts and brain science.  The word is “relational trauma.”  I made the connection that my gifts of communication, empathy, relating across differences and sensitivity to oppression stem from my experiences as an unloved, misunderstood child trying to navigate extremely challenging situations on her own.  And they stem from continuing to attract people and situations that reinforce this trauma, and my false beliefs around being unlovable in a dangerous world of unreliable or incompetent people.  These gifts are beautiful scars — talents and abilities I developed to survive my wounding.  I relate to the oppressed and disenfranchised because I know the pain and injustice of marginalization personally.  And my passion for inclusion, justice, and diversity come from a commitment to preventing others from being traumatized like I was.

So now I wonder — who would I be today if I had not been wounded?  Which parts of me are not beautiful scars?  Without my wounding, I would still be smart.  I would still be musically gifted.  I would still be funny.  I would still be talented with words.

But perhaps I would also be be more self-centered and less empathetic?  Maybe my wounding has helped me be more human, more sensitive, more connected?  In truth, I shudder to think of the chronically narcissistic, impatient, narrow person I might be if my life had been easier.  Perhaps I would be a highly successful yet destructive musician, or a cutthroat executive in some powerful, well-monied industry.

Or maybe I would be a better version of the Self I know today, but happier, less conflicted, less fearful, and more satisfied with her relationships.

The question about my wounding may seem moot, since it is what it is and I am who I am.  Perhaps the best response is to notice, be grateful, and contemplate the awe of it all.  But I think becoming aware of our essence, combined with our wounding, might be a key step in fully realizing who we truly are.  My wounding has allowed me to suffer, to be more aware, to heal myself and others, and to midwife others’ journeys of (re)discovery.  But becoming aware of the impact of this wounding on my life at this point on my path might be an important step towards freedom and a more fully integrated, authentic self.  In becoming more aware, I can make new and different choices, and I can choose to be grateful to my wounds, but no longer defined by them.

In fact, my wounds are now interfering with the next stage of my development.  My history of relational trauma makes me mistrustful and fearful of other people, while also harboring a deep need to connect, be vulnerable and have greater intimacy in my life.  This affects the health and quality of my relationships.  My history of relational trauma also makes me want to cling to a professional commitment to diversity and healing the “isms” that may actually be weighing me down as I grow.  A part of me doesn’t want to heal or stop until everyone is healed — but this is a futile and counterproductive orientation.  Healing myself heals others, and healing myself might just be my most important work.

I believe the meaning of human life is to continue our long history of evolution.  We are here to learn, to grow, to improve, to stretch, and to experience all that life has to offer.  We are the embodiment of the Universe coming to know itself.  Therefore, we have a responsibility to grow our consciousness.

The truth is that I’m not entirely sure who or what I would be today without my wounding.   Another truth is that I don’t know for sure what the meaning of life is (or even if such a thing exists!).  However, asking and pondering such questions allows me to evolve, and to grow my consciousness.  It therefore has meaning to my life and my happiness, and, hopefully, to yours too.

So, who would you be today if you had not been wounded? And who are you today because of it?

In lak ech!

~Jaxsine