What I’m grappling with lately is what we do with “bad behaviour.” Our species is so full of bad behaviour: racism, slavery, homophobia, ageism, antisemitism, misogyny, tribalism, violence and hatred and more – torture, rape, murder.
How do we respond? Especially how do we as “conflict resolvers” respond? I often think of this quote as a guide for me in what I teach others in how to engage with power and injustice:
“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It is important to speak to injustice. Yet how do we do it? I want love with justice. I want dialogue. And, yes, I want change.
I’ve studied the science of the brain (and our animal mammalian brains) and know we easily slip into judgments about each other and go into our separate camps so easily. I hold and like to repeat the belief that we are mammals first, that we all want to be loved, held, cuddled and seen as beautiful.
There needs to be love and kindness in how we engage injustice. We all ultimately have soft underbellies so we need to speak hard truths with love. We need to be soft on the person, yet hard on the problem. It’s a cliché from our field but one that helps guide me.
So, yes, we need to speak out. Yes, we need to “call out” bad behaviour. We need to speak truth to power. And, we need civility. We need to speak in ways that honour our common humanity.
We all bleed. We all hurt. We all, fundamentally, need each other.
Archives for February 2022
I am part of a Facebook group called “Deep Adaptation” – which is part of the larger Deep Adaptation Forum (https://www.deepadaptation.info/) – an international virtual community where folks share information on the inner and outer deep adaptations required as societal breakdowns intensify due to climate change.
If that’s a lot to take in – it’s also a lot to wrap one’s brain around. Unfortunately, or fortunately, by virtue of being part of this Facebook group, I’m regularly reminded of the dire situation we are in locally and globally.
Although a lot of this is outside our control, at the same time, having an awareness of the state of the environment and therefore the world because of climate change, is helpful to have front and centre of consciousness. So far, I have found these reminders help me be more appreciative of the life I have today and more determined than ever to support myself and others in this difficult transition time.
So, I was, in an odd way, buoyed today when someone from the Deep Adaptation group posted an article about an alternate way of looking at the demise of Eastern Island. Jared Diamond has popularized the idea that the small Polynesian island, named by Europeans as Eastern Island, is the “clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.”
Yet, Dr. Terry L. Hunt, an internationally renowned anthropologist, archaeologist, and educator did very focused studies in the last twenty years on Easter Island and found evidence for a very different reason that the population went extinct.
You can check out the article yourself for all the twists and turns of Dr. Hunt’s research, but the conclusion that jumped out at me is that the population of Easter Island was not decimated by the ignorance of the population of its impact on the environment. There were, seemingly, continued adaptations to the environment, despite environmental challenges like a burgeoning rat population eating at the tree seeds, which would have contributed greatly to the tree demise.
What collapsed the population was not cutting all the trees down, but European and South American invaders landing on the island in the 1700 and 1800s, with slavery, murder and disease devastating the indigenous population. In the early 1860s, more than a thousand Easter Island inhabitants (Rapanui) were taken from the island as slaves, and by the late 1870s the number of native islanders numbered only around 100. In 1888, the island was annexed by Chile and remains part of that country today.
According to Hunt and others, it was “genocide, not ecocide, that caused the demise of the Rapanui.”
So why does this idea buoy me?
It has helped solidify some of my thinking by moving away from blaming humans. It’s been my experience in conflict that blame is a dead-end game. What I find more constructive is to think more broadly about the climate-change pickle we are in. Instead of it being all our fault as humans, which leads us to point fingers and become defensive and closed off from each other, can we step back and come together?
We will surely need stronger collaborations and power-with relationships as our climate continues to grow more extreme. Can we put our emphasis on searching out ways to work together? As old institutions and ways of delivering food systems collapse, we will have more and more need to build something new.
Whether we will all perish from thirst, starvation, smoke inhalation, burning or melting to death, we will still need each other and do better in cooperation than in conflict. Whether any of our species survive as our climate grows more inhospitable, can we stay connected, loving and cooperative in the extremes?
As odd as that might sound, that’s my vision and why I’m buoyed!
Last year, I was smitten with Jeffrey Martin’s research on how to strengthen an inner capacity for fundamental well-being. I love that he interviewed many people and created a program which promises a high likelihood that you too can cultivate a permanent sense of fundamental well-being.
In the context of climate change and climate collapse, attention to our well-being is more important than ever. I believe that because of meeting mindfulness and neuroscience-oriented therapist Judy Zehr. She taught me a lot about stress and conflict and many of her lessons went into the book we co-authored a few years ago called Hold On To Yourself – How to Stay Cool in Hot Conversations.
What I learned from Judy is that when we are stressed, we think more rigidly and more judgmentally. We are more prone to “other” the other and want to either fight, flight, freeze or submit. These are not our higher natures. And, the bad news is, we all can switch into this lesser part of us, and in a nano-second.
When the pesky little amygdala in our brain is triggered, we can blurt out things we would not usually say, certainly not to someone we love. Our physiology jumps out of balance and we act in ways that are not reflective of our more compassionate states – me included. I can have all the conflict resolution training in the world (and believe me, I have a lot of it!) and still, if someone says something that trips up my social brain, my heart starts racing and fear or anger or hurt rise before I can cognitively do anything about it. I can be in the grip of my emotions through an amygdala hijack!
We are mammals and all mammal brains feel emotions. We do have more pre-frontal cortex than most other mammals, that part of the brain which allows us to think and to reason, but it is not always on line!
It helps me tremendously to know this. It enables me to realize that I need to, time and again, bring myself compassion for my own emotional reactions. I also know that when I am in those states, I am thinking differently than when I am calm.
Most recently, a dear conflict colleague and I were in a conflict. He thought I wasn’t giving him enough of my time; I thought I didn’t have more time to give. Pretty soon, my palms were sweating and I was going into fear. Does he hate me? He’s so angry with me. I don’t want to see him! Then he texted me – telling me he was seeing me as the “other.” We know the language! We know the drill!
Luckily, having knowledge and skills available from the pre-frontal cortex (our thinking brains) can help. He suggested we move from texting to audio messaging, so we could hear each other’s tone of voice. Studies have shown that we read into texts our own tone of voice, and since tone of voice is almost 50% of communication, it can be a big barrier.
That was our break-through! No, we weren’t conflicted over what might be the big issues. This wasn’t about land use, or who might get the last piece of food as our food supplies dry up or a racial injustice. The stakes were low – we’ve been friends for decades and have worked through other tensions in our past.
But when I was in the grips, it was very real for me.
What happened next, speaks to the importance of fundamental well-being and how it is interwoven with our relationships. When my colleague friend and I switched to an audio environment, and I heard his voice and he heard mine, I started to calm down.
I shared that sometimes when he becomes irritated, I feel afraid. He messaged back an audio message and told me he knows I’d said that before but he’d not really felt it so deeply before. He apologized and I could feel my whole body relaxing. It also helped me own my part of pulling away, which had fueled his own emotions in the first place.
I know the link between stress, fear and the tendency to be closed down and want to separate and “other” the other. Stress and fear erodes our capacity to be open, communicative and collaborative. My conflict colleague knows this as well. I was so happy that we found a way to share our care for each other and the impacts of our behaviours on each other in a kind way. We are back to laughing and messaging away, knowing that we will find the right balance of time in our relationship.
And, I feel completely different than I did days ago, when I felt afraid. Now I can feel my heart open again, and an optimism about our relationship part of it.
So, becoming aware of our brain states and how to move them back to stasis is a practice that we need not just for our own health and well-being, but for the health and well-being of those we love and for the planet herself.
Let’s keep re-calibrating ourselves to love and well-being and then come back to our relationships. It’s the best way forward.
“War hysteria and dark nationalism deactivates the mass prefrontal cortex (the rational brain) and activates the amygdala (the fear centers). They are the key tools for dark democracy…The key arsenal of dark democracy is developing hatred and enmity towards the neighboring countries. Politicians do this just to block the prefrontal cortex or the wisdom brain of the masses and to activate the amygdala, the fear centers of the brain of the masses.” Amit Ray, Nuclear Weapons Free World Peace on the Earth