Transforming our “age of anger” with care and understanding

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In a compelling long-form piece for the Guardian, Pankaj Mishra writes that “we find ourselves in an age of anger, with authoritarian leaders manipulating the cynicism and discontent of furious majorities.” Invoking Donald Trump (“the biggest political earthquake of our times”), Brexit, the Middle East, “insurgencies from Yemen to Thailand,” terrorism, and other disturbing events, he acknowledges that “we cannot understand this crisis because our dominant intellectual concepts and categories seem unable to process an explosion of uncontrolled forces.”

He concludes his thoughtful analysis with a call for understanding:

With so many of our landmarks in ruins, we can barely see where we are headed, let alone chart a path. But even to get our basic bearings we need, above all, greater precision in matters of the soul. The stunning events of our age of anger, and our perplexity before them, make it imperative that we anchor thought in the sphere of emotions; these upheavals demand nothing less than a radically enlarged understanding of what it means for human beings to pursue the contradictory ideals of freedom, equality and prosperity.

The complete article is well worth the time of anyone who is trying to comprehend our world today. Also, a fuller explication of Mishra’s analysis will appear in his forthcoming book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present. For now, however, I’d like to take Mishra’s core points and apply them to clusters of events over the past weekend.

Marches and rallies

It could be argued that the marches and rallies that took place around the world on Saturday were a manifestation of that age of anger. After all, the original Washington D.C. women’s march was organized in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, fueled by outrage and alarm.

But something funny happened at these events: Though perhaps prompted by anger, the large marches and rallies were voiceful, peaceful, and — yes — loving. Here in Boston, some 175,000 people (mostly women, but with a good number of men and kids) gathered to be heard, with reportedly not a single incident requiring police intervention.

Throughout Saturday and into Sunday, friends on Facebook posted photos and personal accounts from these female-led rallies in cities and communities across the country. Yes, anger and defiance may have brought them to these places, but their posts and photos communicated a sense of bold, joyous, and uplifting solidarity.

I have been on Facebook since 2009, and I can’t remember that social media site ever feeling so energetically alive. The posts from march participants were fresh, vibrant, even jubilant. My friends felt, quite accurately, that they were participating in historic events. I was so happy for them, and deeply appreciated what they did.

Meanwhile, in a small Boston conference room…

While many of my friends were at the marches, I was participating in a two-day “Integral Practitioner Lab” in downtown Boston, hosted by the Center for Transformative Learning at Meridian University in California. Here’s a partial explanation of the program from the university:

Many of us are are called to lives of sacred purpose where we seek to join professional livelihood with personal meaning and passion. However, there is a widening gap between the challenges of complexity and our individual and collective capabilities.

To realize our potential for passionate and meaningful livelihood, we must close this gap by building a bridge of capability.
The Integral Practitioner Lab at Meridian University offers the opportunity to identify, develop and refine a unique constellation of competencies that are required for impact.

This was, in essence, a gently directed, co-created series of conversations, guest speakers, and demonstration exercises embracing the broad topic of building bridges between individual and social change, facilitated by Meridian president Aftab Omer and Meridan faculty member Zak Stein. There were about two dozen of us in all, drawn from a surprisingly varied list of locations.

The major highlight was getting to know a warm, smart, and impact-making group of individuals. Our gathering included coaches, therapists, entrepreneurs, educators, consultants, and writers. With nary a PowerPoint slide in sight, we engaged in some 16 hours of dialogue and exchange about the state of the world and how we can contribute to its betterment. During this time, we learned about each other’s interests and projects, with our final focused activity being a break-out session of small group coaching.

Another highlight for me was an interactive session, via video conferencing, with Jean Houston, a renowned, visionary author and researcher who has joined Meridian as its chancellor. Dr. Houston addressed the anxieties and concerns about the world’s current political, social, and economic disruptions felt by many in the room. Pointing in part to Saturday’s peaceful marches and rallies around the world, but without offering false hopes, she suggested that these stark challenges have led us to a singular, mythic moment of opportunity to transform our society in healthier, more humane ways.

On a personal level, I was gifted with the opportunity to participate in an extended coaching exercise involving the full group and guided by Dr. Omer. In it, I was a client of sorts, attempting to learn more about my “developmental edges,” i.e., those aspects of ourselves that we can develop in order to be more effective in matters that we care about. This session deeply clarified my self-awareness of how I can be a more fiercely effective change agent toward making our laws and legal systems more receptive to psychological health and well-being, while working through feelings of anger over injustice, unfairness, and abuse. (To any of my fellow participants reading this, thank you, I am grateful beyond words.)

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I admit it: Current events of the past year or so have sometimes put me in a funk, capped off by the presidential inauguration on Friday. But between those marching on the outside and the dialogue in our conference room, the weekend gave me a true lift, providing hope — to borrow from Pankaj Mishra — that we can better understand our society and achieve “greater precision in matters of the soul.” Our talents and commitments are needed, so let us work on ourselves and the world around us to make transformational changes.

“Being present with intelligence, knowledge, skills, and strength, but anchored in heart”

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If you can spare an hour to listen to a remarkably far-ranging and compassionate mind at work, please click to this December 2016 lecture by Dr. Michael Britton at the annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network in New York City. The occasion is the workshop’s Don Klein Memorial Lecture, which provides the speaker with an opportunity to paint — in strokes both broad and hard — a connective, contextual, historical picture about our society and how we move forward in the quest for human dignity. Here’s Michael’s bio, and here’s how the lecture is described on its YouTube page:

Michael Britton gives the Don Klein Memorial Lecture on the morning of December 8, 2015, Day Two of the 13th Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, which took place at Columbia University in New York City, December 8 – 9, 2016. Michael Britton is concerned with integrative thinking across neuroscience, in-depth psychotherapies and historical/cultural living, Michael’s work looks at how participation in the historical life of our times and interior life are deeply intertwined.

At the outset of his talk, Michael acknowledges the “struggle between how you keep faith, love, and joy strong in the midst of . . . also feeling fear and angst about some of the things going on in our country and our world.” He goes on to recognize the challenges of “being present with intelligence, knowledge, skills, and strength, but anchored in heart.”

Michael has a unique ability to integrate individual change and social change, making connections between topics such as childhood neglect and abuse, politics and policy, the environment, and human rights. He is not a hell fire and brimstone speaker, so if you’re looking for someone shakes the rafters, you may want to look elsewhere. Rather, he is a calm, intelligent, impassioned voice who gives us reason for hope without ignoring the challenges we face.

Dear readers, in this age of short attention spans and Twitter, suggesting that you invest some 60 minutes in an old-fashioned lecture is asking a lot, I know. My suggestion? Give this lecture 15 minutes and decide whether it’s worth your time to watch the rest. I hope you’ll agree that it’s worth watching the rest.

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Group photo of our workshop

Three 20th century voices inform our understanding of modern American society

 

Three important, insightful voices from the last century may help us understand the social and political state of today’s America.

In his frighteningly prescient Preface to Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America (1982 ed.), social scientist Bertram Gross identified two conflicting trends in American culture:

The first is a slow and powerful drift toward greater concentration of power and wealth in a repressive Big Business-Big Government partnership. . . . The phrase “friendly fascism” helps distinguish this possible future from the patently vicious corporatism of classic fascism in the past of Germany, Italy and Japan.

…The other is a slower and less powerful tendency for individuals and groups to seek greater participation in decisions affecting themselves and others. . . . It is embodied in larger values of community, sharing, cooperation, service to others and basic morality as contrasted with crass materialism and dog-eat-dog competition.

Gross went on to identify a group of people who were consolidating power in America:

I see at present members of the Establishment or people on its fringes who, in the name of Americanism, betray the interests of most Americans by fomenting militarism, applauding rat-race individualism, protecting undeserved privilege, or stirring up nationalistic and ethnic hatreds.

In the spring I cited the rise of Donald Trump as the prime exemplar of the mainstreaming of Gross’s 1982 scenario. This dystopian reality is now before us, front and center, as Trump goes about the task of forming his new administration.

In her final book, Dark Age Ahead (2004), the late Jane Jacobs — the brilliantly iconoclastic observer of urban and contemporary life — expressed fears that we are entering a new “Dark Age” marked by a sharp decline in core societal institutions and values. Here were the key markers behind her thesis:

  • Family and community — Consumption, consumerism, debt, and wealth supplanting family and community welfare;
  • Higher education — Higher education becoming a tool for credentialing instead of a process for learning;
  • Science — Denigration of hard science, along with the elevation of economics as the primary science shaping public policy;
  • Government — Ending the notion of government for the common good, replaced by government acting on behalf of powerful interests; and,
  • Ethics — Breakdown of ethics in learned professions.

Dark Age Ahead did not receive rave reviews upon its publication. As I recall, it was greeted with a sort of polite acknowledgement of the author’s concerns, along with a nod to her reputation and overall body of work. I felt the same way, too. But it turns out that Jacobs was merely a decade ahead of her time. Her analysis is now spot on, having anticipated our current milieu with scary accuracy.

For reasons I wish were not so, I believe that the work of philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt also will be increasingly relevant toward understanding how individual behaviors impact broader concerns in today’s America. As I wrote in 2014:

…Hannah Arendt invoked the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how Adolf Eichmann served as one of Hitler’s architects of the Holocaust. Since then, the phrase has come to represent — in more generic terms — how ordinary people become easily invested in the values of a morally bankrupt status quo and participate in terrible behaviors that seemingly are unthinkable in civilized society.

Arendt’s work was deeply informed by European events during first half of the last century. In her Preface to Men in Dark Times (1968 ed.), an examination of how prominent European intellectuals, religious leaders, civic leaders, and activists responded to authoritarian threats of the era, she posited:

Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given to them on earth.

During the years to come, we’re going to need lots of “men and women, in their lives and works” (to borrow from Arendt) to shine a light on our society and to make life more humane, dignified, and inclusive. We don’t need more bystanders who submit passively to malevolent forces swirling around us, while hoping not to be among those swallowed up by them. This is a time for us to stand for something and be counted.

Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies 2016 annual workshop: Building a community of caring

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I just finished participating in the annual two-day workshop on transforming humiliation and violent conflict, hosted by Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS), a global network of scholars, practitioners, students, artists, and activists committed to the advancement of human dignity and to the ending of humiliating practices. Every December we gather at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City, immersing ourselves in highly interactive discussions and exchanges, amidst a genuine spirit of fellowship.

This card is one of the little gifts distributed at the workshop. “The Five Good Things” come from the late Jean Baker Miller, a psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of relational psychology, not to mention a key mentor to HumanDHS director Linda Hartling.

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“The Five Good Things” were at play throughout this workshop. It was a supportive, enlightening, and even loving gathering at a time when a lot of folks in our group (including yours truly) really needed it. (Summaries of this annual workshop have become a staple on this blog for good reason!)

I have been involved with HumanDHS since 2007, and in recent years my connections to it and the remarkable people who are part of it have grown deeply. In addition to joining the board of directors, I have been increasingly involved in the New York City workshop. This year I presented a short paper on the importance of understanding psychological trauma and moderated two of the dialogue sessions. I also led our group in singing “What a Wonderful World,” made famous by Louis Armstrong and an apt song for our event.

Group photo after our board meeting

Group photo after our board meeting

Being part of this extended global community is both a privilege and a blessing. Such a community is not, and should not be, our sole point of connection with the world. In fact, at the workshop we recognized the importance of sharing dignity-enhancing practices with those who are initially resistant to them. Nevertheless, at a time when raw exercises of interpersonal aggression and bigotry are too often rewarded by the dominant power structure, the need for people holding a different set of core values to come together in order to refuel and reenergize is significant.

I’ll be writing more about this year’s workshop and posting some photos from it, but for now I simply wanted to do this quick mention and express my gratitude to those who made it such a meaningful experience.

What does it mean to be “onto something”?

(Image courtesy of clipartix.com)

(Image courtesy of clipartix.com)

Say I’m at a conference, workshop, or seminar, and someone offers insights or ideas that appear to open a new door to understanding and solving challenges big or small. My usual thought bubble is, hey, you’re onto something here! And if I get a chance to share feedback during the session, that’s the gist of what I’ll say.

What does it mean to be “onto something”? Well, if you search “onto something meaning,” you’ll get several similar explanations of the term. I like this one from Oxford Living DictionariesHave an idea or information that is likely to lead to an important discovery. 

Most of the discoveries in my realm tend to be solution-based approaches to challenges facing law & public policy, workers and workplaces, and so forth. Events such as periodic workshops on workplace bullying and on therapeutic jurisprudence, the biennial Work, Stress, and Health conference, the biennial International Congress of Law and Mental Health, and the annual Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies workshop are among those that frequently prompt my “you’re onto something” responses.

For change agents in any field, and those who want to be, what does this mean? As I suggested in the close of my recent law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice), it means finding “a place where one’s networks, circles, and tribes feel right in terms of shared or compatible goals, and where one’s activities and values are largely congruent.”

As I further acknowledged, it took me until my fifties to find that place. So if you want to be a difference maker, but you haven’t found your niche yet, try to be patient and remain open to messages and opportunities. Sooner or later, you’ll be onto something.

On immersing yourself and finding the ground floors of positive change

Hackers

For many years, I have counted Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984 orig ed.; now in a 25th ann. 2010 ed.) among my favorite books. It’s the story of the pioneers of personal computing, starting back in the late 50s and going into the heart of the 80s. It’s a wonderfully written book, full of personalities, discoveries, and innovations.

Nevertheless, from a distance this doesn’t look like the kind of book that would hold my affection. I’m not a tech geek. In fact, I am among a minority of professors at my law school who prohibit the use of laptops in my classrooms, and I have used PowerPoint only once in the many talks I’ve given at conferences and programs over the years.

So what’s the ongoing draw of this book?

For me, Hackers captures the great pull of immersing yourself in something that matters deeply to you; doing something positive, constructive, and/or creative; and being part of a group of people whose collective efforts exceed the sum of their parts. At times, it’s about being able to join something truly exciting on the ground floor.

Within the past decade or so, I’ve found those kinds of connections:

  • The workplace anti-bullying movement has become a core piece of my work and life. I feel very blessed that I discovered this movement early in its inception and am playing a meaningful role in growing it.
  • The emerging intern rights movement has also become deeply important to me. I’m delighted over my supportive, “senior” role to this predominantly younger cohort of activists.
  • The therapeutic jurisprudence network, only a quarter century old, is about to launch a global non-profit organization, and I am excited to be working closely with a small group of organizers.
  • Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, founded in the early 2000s, is poised to help shape dialogue, research, and practice toward a more dignified society. Last year I joined its board, and I am stoked about the possibilities for expanding the influence of this wonderful network.

Most of the crowd in Hackers found their passions early in life. For me, these pieces didn’t truly come together until my fifties. Call me a late bloomer, but it took me a long time to grow into and find this groove. Now, it feels right, and I’m very grateful for that.

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You may read more about my work in these realms in my recently published law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice).

 

 

Workshopping workplace dignity

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Yesterday and today, I had the deep privilege of facilitating a small group workshop on dignity at work, hosted at Suffolk University Law School.

Although I often feature and highlight speakers and participants from programs I host, because of the personal nature of some of our discussions, I will refrain from doing so here. Suffice it to say, however, that the ten participants — drawn largely from the Boston area — made for an extraordinary group, individually and collectively. Here are among the topics we discussed:

  • Framing dignity in relation to the experience of work;
  • Examining workplace dignity in the context of a specific employment sector, in this case, health care;
  • Discussing how participants are addressing workplace dignity issues in their own lives, while getting feedback from the group; and,
  • Looking at future advocacy efforts for workplace anti-bullying legislation.

When it came to describing their own workplace dignity activities, many of the participants offered stories of their own life experiences. It was a testament to the supportive atmosphere of the workshop that people felt sufficiently confident and safe to share their stories in this manner.

For me personally, here are among the lessons learned and reinforced by this workshop experience:

  • There is power in creating intentional communities of good people devoted to positive social and individual change.
  • With the right mix of people, gatherings such as this one can be both healing on an individual level and constructive on a social change level.
  • When you bring together folks from different backgrounds, professions, and areas of expertise, the exchange of experiences, ideas, and information can generate new insights and understandings.

The workshop was a trial balloon of sorts, with a loose structure that relied on the participants to provide the content — without a PowerPoint slide in sight! I realize that not every such program will be so rewarding, but I saw and heard more than enough to be able to proclaim the event a success, with designs on working with others to expand this circle.

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