on paths of least resistance (and destruction)

On a recent hike through Montgomery Bell State Park, I was struck by the way the trail was carefully created to offer challenge followed by beauty. I have done this particular hike several times, once getting so lost that I thought I might become an unofficial and very smelly backcountry groundskeeper. Remembering that disorientation, I was keenly aware of my surroundings, and paid attention in a way that I normally don’t.

 Nashville had record-breaking rainfall this winter and spring. Although the Appalachian Mountains on Tennessee’s eastern border are famously home to generations of Scotsmen, middle Tennessee recently mirrored Scotland with months of gray rainy days. Walking though the woods, the evidence of the rain was everywhere. Soggy ground sprang under each step, and rivers’ voices were louder than normal as the water rushed past. Tracks of mud were evident as rivulets large and small formed during the most ardent downpours.

 Montgomery Bell’s trails are well cared for and defined, but now, because of the rain, there were huge gashes of mud and mulch that crossed the curated paths, at times making it difficult to find the way forward. Heavy rains gorged the earth, scarring thoughtfully laid paths with newly formed trenches that led nowhere. Walking along, it was easy to follow the path of least resistance, to go along with the rain until I realized that once again I had lost my way and wondered off the path and into a ditch.

 In my fifth decade, I am often struck by how difficult survival can be. Carefully choosing my steps, searching for the trail’s progress, I considered the many ways we move through life. The act of forward movement can feel impossible sometimes, especially when the best path is unclear. Particularly challenging is the choice to resist the instinct to function out of our most entrenched places. Sometimes it is hard to even recognize when a choice will take us into a ditch or elevate us to higher ground. Like pouring rain that falls, carving deep ravines across a more thoughtfully laid trail, our worst instincts tempt us to leave the best route and instead follow a path leading to our own destruction.

Consider the way we engage with difference. We know by now that we cannot talk with people who come from different walks of life without first recognizing our own bias, remembering that our experiences shape us in meaningful ways, that these experiences are incredibly different, and that in order to walk toward others we should expect to hear new ideas and different perspectives. When we enter into these conversations, it is rather easy to wonder off the curated path, stepping unknowingly onto the rugged path cut through the earth from the many downpours that came before. We say we want to learn something new, but then we hear a different experience, we react badly, and we end up in a ditch, often without even realizing we stepped away from the path created for our own good.

 We feel skeptical when another’s experience seems to challenge our understanding of how the world works, and we step into the ditch.

We feel attacked by the hard reality someone else lives, and we step into the ditch.

We feel exhausted by the effort it takes to keep moving forward in awkward conversations, and we step into the ditch.

We feel defensive when we hear the unfamiliar perspective of another, and we step into the ditch.

We feel confused and alienated when we perceive that “normal” for others is wildly unfamiliar for us, and we step into the ditch.

Like accumulating water, gathering into franticly formed streams, we look for the path of least resistance. As spontaneously formed rivers cut a new path that leads nowhere, the meaningful path becomes harder to discern, until one day it is hard to see at all. Our interactions are like that. The more we follow our instincts, defensive and touchy, easily offended and looking for a way to escape the discomfort that comes with reaching across lines of difference, the more we find ourselves on the unstable ground of recently moved earth. We look up to see we are in a ravine—with like minded others—trapped in a dead end and far from a path made for many feet.

When we follow our worst instincts, we lose our bearings, and eventually, our hope, finding ourselves in a muddy ditch rather than on a path toward a clearing where we can share ideas and form a society with room for all. However, when we keep our footing and avoid the destructive streams rushing by, we quickly recognize that engaging with others who experience the world differently inspires our own curiosity, increasing our capacity for mystery, humility and wonder. It becomes obvious that the carefully laid path is the one that leads to wonder, to curiosity, to walking with another person who stands in their own shoes and interacts with the world differently than you do.

Walking on the shared path is difficult, and requires a deep focus on context, on orienting ourselves to our surroundings. It requires us to step over small currents that can sweep us away, to maintain our bearings, to choose our steps—and words—wisely. It requires skill that can be honed and strengthened. We can get better at this! It begins with a commitment to notice the rivulets, to observe how they end, and to choose instead to keep walking on the path toward a clearing.

How easily we stumble onto the path of least resistance, haphazardly created by a downpour.  The rains will keep coming, and the way forward will continue to be obscured by destructive habits. A better way is to slowly walk the trail meant to take us through challenging terrain with others, but ultimately, toward beauty.

hello, old friend

I studied in Edinburgh, Scotland in college, during a time of life when my ethic could best be articulated as, Try Everything. Haggis, check. Scotch, check. Backpacking everywhere, check. Driving a car on as many roundabouts as possible, check. From Loch Ness to the Lake District to Brussels to the Ring of Kerry, if anyone offered me a spot, I grabbed my bag and jumped on a train.  It came naturally, then, to agree to join the Hillwalking club at the University of Edinburgh. I like hills. I like walking. I hoped to like the Highlands, which was the location of our first weekend hillwalking adventure. I signed up.

Needless to say, I was taken aback when they handed out crampons and ice picks before we left our mountain lodge for our first walk. 7 hours, a white-out blizzard and some mild frost bite later, I realized that what they meant by “hillwalking” was “ice climbing.” I wanted to walk hills, and previously even wished the club had a more aggressive sounding name, like Mountain Hiking Club. I was ready to walk, to hike, to burn and sweat. But dear reader, I was not ready for ice picks, roping in, or blizzards.

As we ease into 2019 it is helpful to prepare ourselves for the year ahead. Anticipating celebrations of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., many of us will pledge our allegiance to living lives closely aligned with his ethic of life. We will say we are committed to reaching across lines of difference, to pursuing diverse perspectives, to resisting injustice and to responding with non-violent, non-defensive patience in the face of bigotry or hate. Our memory of his work makes it look so easy, and he seems so noble that we want to join him! Many of us fervently believe we must intentionally reach across lines of difference as we big bigger tables with more seats in our effort to build a just society. The work is necessary, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy.

Before we pledge our allegiance, it is useful to understand what we are signing up for. When I say I love diversity and want to pursue it and promote it in my spheres of influence, I am saying I love realizing I have bias, that my privilege has blinded me, and that I am often hurtful and offensive. When I say I want more diversity I am asking to actively decrease my own power and control, to increase moments of discomfort and tension as I apologize more, seeing my deficits and bad assumptions. When I say I like diversity, I am saying I enjoy undermining my own perspective.

I assert these truths as a person who actively pursues diversity, and wants to live and work in environments where diverse perspectives influence culture and policy. As such, I am interested in closing the gap between what we claim to want and what we commit to do consistently. We often talk a good game when we begin a new year or role, but it proves difficult to maintain our commitments when they make life uncomfortable or inefficient. We think our fervent desire for certain values will translate into inhabiting those values within our communities; sadly, when relationships prove difficult or messy, we give up. Because we fail to realize the ramifications of the vision to which we say we are committed, we unwittingly reinforce our own sense of disillusionment and inertia. While some dreams are indeed difficult to reach, much of our failure comes not because the dream is unworthy or unattainable, but because we give up when our naïve expectations are not met.

How can we increase our capacity to stay invested even when the dream proves difficult? Passionate reformers have many suggestions, but allow me to offer one piece of advice: If you want to be a person whose stated values reflect authentic aspects of your practical self and habits, it is vital that you honestly reflect on the commitments you make. If I understand all the decentering adjustments and awkwardness a life committed to pursuing diverse perspectives will ask of me, I can embrace such uncomfortable requirements when they arise.

When we speak honestly about our hopes and resolutions, we anticipate the sacrifice such commitments demand, thus preparing us to stay in the game even when it requires Thor-levels of grit. Such honest anticipation offers us a level of comfort, of familiarity, when the task before us feels difficult. In my own commitment to elevating diverse perspectives, I am sometimes caught off guard by how inefficient such a habit is. Now, when a meeting is not moving as quickly as I had hoped because it takes time and painstaking clarity to hear from and honor many diverse perspectives and notions of “normal,” I have a greater capacity to sit in the tension I feel. When I sense the frustration that often comes from people in this type of setting, when I feel the trickle of sweat begin to form down my back, when I wonder if tempers or accusations might soon escalate, I think, “Hello old friend, I’ve been expecting you.”

If I really intend to be a person committed to making space for diverse perspectives at every level, I must expect this moment with every fiber of my being. Such a move offers us the chance to expect our old friends—tension, misunderstanding and inefficiency—rather than abandoning the task at hand when they show up. Anticipate these old friends, and don’t run for the exit when they appear! Instead, think, “Ah yes, and here you are, just as I thought you would be.” The remarkable gifts of collaborating across lines of difference to find the best solutions are worthy of our honest commitment to stay in the game.

I am a terrible hill walker, mostly because I gave up after that one measly blizzard terrified me. If I had anticipated the cold, the blinding snow, the burning fingertips, or the uncertainty of losing our bearings, then I might have smiled inside as the winds picked up. “Hi old friend, I’ve been expecting you. Let’s walk together as I figure out which step to take next.” Let us not talk falsely now, but instead pledge our allegiance to ideals only when we have gazed them full in the face, ready for all they might bring.

are salon's back?! in search for a civil public sphere

In 17th century Paris, the Salon phenomenon brought curiosity, enlightened thought and informed conversation to life.  It is the stuff of fantasy.  Leading thinkers, gathering together in the public sphere, to talk with one another, sharing ideas, listening, learning and arguing about how society might better function.  Print media did not yet exist, and so people had to gather, leaning in to one another to learn.  There were participants and there were spectators, but ideas were the champions of the day.  Ideas soared or were slayed based on the informed, rational, and civil public discourse that swirled around them. 

I have long dreamed of creating a similar arena in today’s world, expanded to include every gender, race and class.  I am a scholar with a PhD.  So yeah, I guess I know things.  But there are many, many gaps in my knowledge, and I would love nothing more than to sit with people on my porch, in a coffeehouse, or at a bar, and learn from others.  To think with people about things that matter.  To be so curious about what I don’t know that I listen to learn, not just to respond.  To discuss ideas that could bring more flourishing to people or the planet.  To talk about the many ways trauma, hate or fear destroy lives.  To bring our thoughts out into the open in an attempt to spur just action.

While I have romanticized this idea for over a decade, I have simultaneously shunned social media as distraction propping up vanity.  I have had no interest at all in redefining the words “friend”, “like”, “follow” or “tweet.”   People chasing the ridiculous approval of others become more performative, less authentic, right?

Enter the hypocrisy of my dreams. 

While I was busy shunning all the shallow people, most of you were experiencing small and large doses of the amazing salons of Paris without me!  While I was too arrogant to feel left out, I began to have a sneaking suspicion that perhaps platforms like facebook, reddit, twitter—and even instagram and snapchat to lesser extents—had become the new public sphere.  These arenas can beautifully create space for the exchanging of ideas, the fostering of curiosity, and the engaging of thoughtful discussion.  The salon lives! Could it be? On social media, of all things?

If Parisian salons of long ago call to my weary soul, then I must do my part to create the same hospitable environment in the arenas I enter, whether online or face to face. 

When my teenage son earned a phone and begged for an instagram account, I reluctantly created an account as well (in the name of good parenting).  Within a year, the slippery slope of engagement led me to create a twitter account as well (in the name of launching ExpandYourUs.com).  Here is what I’ve learned.

Social medias are public spheres.  Conversations are happening 24/7, and people from every walk of life engage each other in this magical space.  Yes, there is a shit ton of noise.  Yes, there are many more uninformed people with intense opinions than should be legal.  Yes, I wish they would all stop talking.  But I have learned that there are also interchanges full of wonder and curiosity.  There are people teaching others everywhere.  Lonely and oppressed people have been uplifted; silenced voices have been given a megaphone.  Social media is a public space in which ideas, dreams, practices and policies are debated and discovered.  Long Live the Salon!

Words and images speak to the soul.  Words are now amplified to destroy lives more than ever.  Images undermine and ruin careers and futures.  But words and images also offer us powerful ways to engage our deadened and distracted souls.  They give birth to empathy and compassion hard to find in our own routines.  They create space for curiosity and wonder.  Social media, with its manic merging of words and images, provides all of us with the ability to share goodness and beauty on a large scale.  It is easy to bemoan the destructive influence of social media as it spews hate and dehumanizes people who think differently; nevertheless, I offer an apologetic for the redemption of these platforms upon which we might remember how to engage civilly.

I am instinctively a binary thinker, but I am learning, partially through my disgust at social media, that binaries destroy nuance, and a lack of nuance prevents empathy.  In an ode to nuance, I would like to suggest that perhaps we might recognize the possibilities for an enlightening, empathy-building, public discourse provided by social media platforms.  If Parisian salons of long ago call to my weary soul, then I must do my part to create the same hospitable environment in the arenas I enter, whether online or face to face.  Rather than placing all our despair or all our hope in “the media,” or in “social media,” could each of us do our part to keep conversations going?  Instead of trying to win an argument, could we try to listen to a perspective wildly different than our own?  Could we privilege understanding over correcting?  Rather than creating profiles and a way of being in the world that encourages others to either passively observe us or to defensively react to us, could we actively attempt to interact?  To share ideas, to engage in conversations, to create a public sphere where perspectives are discussed, where the experience or thoughts of others are considered and honored?  As long as we pretend like the problem is “out there” or “with them,” refusing to acknowledge the ways in which we ARE the problem, social media will devolve in the same ways everyday conversations have: into defensive anger and the stubborn denial of other perspectives. 

Social media is a public space in which ideas, dreams, practices and policies are debated and discovered.  Long Live the Salon!

Because I believe civil discourse helps us all become better humans, creating more connected communities, and because social media is a ubiquitous public sphere, I am committing to do my part to make it feel more like a French salon, and less like a Spanish bull ring.  Join me?