logo for Education for Racial Equity on a grey background with overlapping circles of red, blue, and yellow

The past year has been an incredible time of learning for me, specifically around anti-racism and Whiteness. I say this not to pat myself on the back – honestly, I’m incredibly embarrassed that I haven’t done this work before – but to acknowledge how much I don’t know. I began, like many others, after the extrajudicial (read: unjustified, police) killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and have been lucky enough to have found a group of other white women with whom to do it. Through those interactions, I’ve learned of books and workshops and I recently joined a cohort of white people working with a group called Education for Racial Equity. 

There are a series of lessons and interactions that will occur over the next nine months and after the first one, I am already making notes and observing my own thoughts and choices, and feeling that particular “brain on fire” sensation that happens for me when I know I am about to really deepen my understanding of something new. During the workshop yesterday, the leader played a short video of Dr. Ken Hardy speaking about relationships (one of my favorite topics, as you know if you read my posts often) and the notion of subjugated versus privileged self.

We talked about this in the context of trauma and individuals who have suffered trauma – specifically white people, since the entire group identifies as white. The idea is that, if you have suffered trauma, you formed a “subjugated” self at some point in your life. Whether that is because you’re a woman and you have been harassed or assaulted because of that gender identity, or if you’ve been denied specific opportunities or absorbed microaggressions directed at you because of that, etc., you have some part of you that identifies with that persona.

Because I am white, I also necessarily have privilege in all spaces. That doesn’t mean my trauma isn’t important and that it doesn’t deserve to be acknowledged, but in the first part of the speech, Dr. Hardy says that when we are in relationship and someone “is reaching out to me, in my privileged position … and I respond from a subjugated position…” that causes harm to the relationship. It stunts the possibility of coalition-building. This was my first “brain on fire” moment.

Immediately, I replayed times in my head when someone came to me for help or solidarity and I responded defensively – justifying my previous inaction or trying to explain why I couldn’t help now because of my subjugated self. I’ve made excuses for my choice not to act definitively – I can’t speak up in this meeting because I’m a woman and my position is precarious/nobody will believe me. I’ve justified my decision not to push beyond that first no – I can’t confront that person because it brings up fears of being verbally attacked that remind me of a painful time.

I recognize now that often, I was being asked to align myself and use my privilege as a white person to advocate for change and instead of acknowledging my privilege, I retreated to my subjugated self.

Later in the workshop, I had another moment of realization when another video played in which a white woman was talking about being in a group with many people of color and telling a story about an incredibly difficult time when her father was persecuted as a young boy because he was Jewish. She acknowledged that she was attempting to create a connection with many of the others in the room by illustrating that her family had experienced prejudice and something really terrifying, and it was only later when she was able to understand that telling that story caused harm to the other group members. At one point as she reflected on the incident, she said she realized that, while it truly was a horrific story and one that had impacted her family in a significant way, it wasn’t her “current reality.” Meaning that she was telling this story as a way to do something Brené Brown calls “hotwire connection,” as though her story was somehow equal to the current day reality of the people of color in the room. She was using her subjugated self to try and make a personal connection when what the people of color needed from her was for her to show up and acknowledge her privileged self.

The fact is, I have a subjugated self. I think we all do. And my subjugated self rarely affects my current reality with regard to privilege. While the person I am is certainly shaped and impacted by my trauma history, I do not leave my house every morning knowing that I will likely be treated poorly because of my status as a woman. I move through the world believing that I will be treated fairly for the most part.  Yes, there may be catcalls or misogyny, and those are personal issues, but the systems through which I move regularly are not set up to malign me or ignore me or cause me significant effort to navigate. By and large, my subjugated self and the stories that accompany it are not my current reality. And if I want to create relationships and collaborations that will change these systems of oppression, I have to show up as my privileged self.

At the end of the video, Dr. Hardy tells a story of a man who blamed the elevator for nearly taking “my fricking arm off” as a way to talk about how we tend to resist self-awareness in favor of blaming the problem on something outside of ourselves. It was the elevator that was the problem, not the fact that the man stuck his arm in the door to try and stop it from closing all the way. All of us have had experiences like that, which is why the audience laughed so hard at the anecdote. But in relationship, it is even more important to try and develop some awareness of the choices we are making when we respond to others, and decide if those choices align with the goal we are shooting for. If I am choosing to respond to someone’s request for help with excuses about why I can’t do it or a story about my own hardship, is that more about getting them to respond to some need I have for comfort or solidarity than about using my position to lift us both up? When I think about it that way, I have to say it is. And that is ultimately not what I’m going for.

I have a feeling the next nine months are going to be mind-blowing and humbling for me. Stay tuned.

The food bank is closed.

It’s Wednesday and the day when I would normally be headed out to a five or six hour shift at the food bank eight blocks from my house. But I’m not going today, or ever again, as it turns out. The parent agency shut us down last week for a variety of reasons (all of which made me sad and frustrated and angry).

Our little food bank was the smallest in the city, and it was because of our small size that we were able to be agile and flexible and make a huge difference in people’s lives, both before the onset of Covid and during. The director – the only paid employee – did the job part-time but she did it with all of her heart and soul. She was dedicated to making sure that we centered our clients, that we understood who they were and what they needed, and that we led with equity and social justice principles and treated every one of the folks we served with dignity. The rest of us were volunteers – some working two hours a week and others many, many more than that.

Because of our location, we served a diverse population of folks – Cambodian and Chinese and Filipino communities. Hispanic folks and Black folks and white folks, too. Before Covid hit, we were set up like a store and farmer’s market (thanks to the partnership we had with a local church congregation that brought us gorgeous fresh produce every Wednesday morning – things like bok choy and garlic and melon and apples and salad greens) and when we opened our doors at noon, there was a line around the block. We had homeless folks who came to us looking for ready-to-eat food (which we made sure to set aside for them; things with pop tops and plastic utensils and granola bars and boxes of raisins), and a partnership with a convenience store down the block that would allow them to use the microwave to heat up their food without asking them to make a purchase. We served many many women and children living in domestic violence shelters or transitional housing, and often set aside birthday cakes or cupcakes for special occasions. We knew our families who needed nut-free or gluten-free food, those who didn’t know how to use canned goods, but wanted frozen meat and fresh vegetables, and we worked with each individual to put together the food that they needed and wanted and would use the most.

When Covid hit, we worked hard to shift, delivering food to every household (which meant we could no longer serve homeless folks), and putting together boxes using what we got from the federal government as well as using donated money to purchase things like cooking oil and baking mix and spices to supplement. The director and I sat down every week and crafted a menu for the following week, anchoring it around one or two specific meals, after looking over what we were projected to receive in our delivery. If we saw we were getting frozen ground beef, we purchased sloppy joe mix and hamburger buns and a complementary vegetable. Egg noodles prompted us to get all the ingredients for tuna casserole. Anticipating the holidays, we stockpiled whole chickens and purchased stuffing and solicited donations of pumpkin pie for everyone. We put together boxes with snacks and made sure we gave everyone enough for multiple breakfasts, lunches, and dinners every week. And it still wasn’t perfect because some weeks we only got pork and we knew our Muslim families wouldn’t eat it; we knew our gluten free clients couldn’t eat about 30% of what we sent them. But we had no choice – we had to send everyone the same thing, and we found other ways to serve our community.

With the leftover produce and some of the random things we got from food drives and our snack supply, I put together boxes of food every week to take to the tent encampments in the neighborhood. I brought loaves of sandwich bread, peanut butter and jelly, pouches of tuna, small boxes of cereal and shelf-stable milk, and apples and bananas. We found a way to help the folks we used to help.

When we had a surplus of huge quantities of frozen meat and rice and orange juice, I called two mutual aid groups and arranged for them to meet me on the weekend and fill their cars and trucks to serve their communities. It helped us free up freezer space and made sure the food was eaten by folks who needed it. Another one of the volunteers is a pastor and he arranged for a group who makes sack lunches for homeless folks to come and get juice boxes and sandwich fixings on a regular basis.

We worked really hard to adapt to the Covid restrictions placed on us, working outside in pouring rain and wind trying to keep the food dry as we social-distanced and packed individual boxes, putting together a crew of amazing volunteer drivers who came one by one all day on Wednesday to fill their cars with boxes of food to drop at households in need, and pivoting when our delivery was late or when we got more than we could possibly store in our small facility. When we got CARES Act money and realized how restricted it was and how quickly we had to use it or lose it, we spent some time bitching about the bureaucracy and how out of touch politicians are with the needs of people in this country, and then we put our heads together to figure out how to make it work for the people we feed every week.

So when I got a text message at 2pm last Tuesday, informing me that the following day was our last day and that we needed to get rid of all the food in our storage areas (eight freezers and five refrigerators, two accessory sheds plus a 400 square foot warehouse) by the end of the day, I was stunned. In addition to the food we had been stockpiling in anticipation of another lockdown, we had 10,000 pounds of food still to be delivered that day. And all of the other groups – the homeless camps, the mutual aid groups, the sack lunch folks – they were out of luck after that, along with our regular delivery clients. The agency believed that the other food banks in the city could “absorb the need,” but they have no idea what we do or how many people we feed in any given week from our little tiny food bank. We have done a phenomenal job of feeding hundreds and hundreds of people with the very few resources we’re given, and we have done it with dedication and a bedrock foundation of love. There were always frustrating elements to the work – the times when we had thousands of pounds of dried beans and local grocery stores sent us hundreds of day-old (weeks old) pastries, but we lacked milk and fresh meat; when neighbors who were moving emptied their pantry of expired, half-eaten items and dumped them on the sidewalk with a note that said “food bank.” But because we were small, we were also scrappy.

I showed up at the food bank last Wednesday just after 7am and got to work. After planning with the director, I mobilized the volunteer crew and we all worked our tails off, sending out more boxes than we’d ever sent before, putting out the call to mutual aid groups and other organizations, stocking our sidewalk “Little Free Pantry” to the gills, crying and reminiscing and and making sure we did what needed to be done. I have never been so physically exhausted in my life, nor have I ever been more proud of a group of people who came together once a week to thoughtfully serve their community.

I have no idea how folks will get the food they need now, but I’m actively trying to bridge the gap for many of them. This scenario is a sad reminder to me that when we rely on systems like these, we will never get what we need in a sustainable way because the system will always find a way to center itself over the beings it was designed to serve. When we rely on people, we get creativity and care and things get done, but it’s always a precarious situation. The system can impose its will and shut down the ability of the people to do what they have been doing. And in systems like this, the inflection point is the worker – they are the one who carries the burden of both toeing the line that the system has created and working creatively to help the people they are trying to help. This is why teachers spend their own money on classroom supplies and work 80 hours a week while only getting paid for 40. It’s why we flexed to find ways to serve mutual aid groups and homeless folks even though we weren’t given any resources to do that work – because we as the workers knew it was important enough to us to figure it out, and as long as it didn’t ask the system for anything, they were willing to turn a blind eye. But even if they hadn’t shut us down, it was unsustainable. We were running out of resources – time, money, energy from volunteers – and the system wasn’t going to give us any more.

I am incredibly sad that this is the decision that was made, and also not at all surprised. When we continue to create systems that pretend to serve human beings but center themselves within capitalism and “business models,” this will always be the way it goes, eventually. When it becomes too hard or too expensive to continue serving people well and with dignity, the system will cut corners in order to spare itself. To be sure, I will take the lessons I’ve learned here – both about the system and about the potential of caring, committed workers – to my next endeavor, whatever that may be, with an eye toward finding better ways to help my community. Stay tuned.

PS – I DO count among my victories during my tenure at the food bank the fact that I was able to convince the agency to give every household a $50 gift card to a local grocery store inside their food delivery for the last two weeks we were open. This post from a few months ago details my thinking about this and why I wish, in all actuality, ALL food banks would close in favor of simply giving people money to purchase the food they need when they need it.

 

curving path with tall orange logs on either side with Japanese writing and a lantern hanging from the ceiling

Torii path with lantern at Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. Photo by Basile Morin

Americans love a shortcut. I’m not sure how it became wedged in our culture so deeply, but there it is, and it plays out in so many different ways that end up hurting the collective.

It’s definitely a human trait to want to avoid the hard work and the arduous journey and find a way to leap right to a more comfortable place, but I think it’s important for us to assess the cost of these short-term fixes so we can determine whether or not they are actually helpful in the long run.

For months and months we’ve been pinning our hopes on a vaccine for Covid-19, hoping that it will release us from the new reality we’ve been living with masks and hand-washing and decreased opportunities to go to the movie theater and restaurants and have big celebrations with our beloveds. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but in the absence of other things we could have been doing to mitigate the pain and suffering so many people have endured in the meantime, it speaks to our overriding desire for instant gratification. While other countries have managed to strongly limit the spread of disease by supporting their citizens with basic needs and universal health care, we have been over here railing against the virus and the leaders who dare to make difficult choices for us all (without actually supporting individuals and communities as they implement those measures). We are here clamoring for a series of shots that will keep us from having to actually build communities that can withstand catastrophe.

But it turns out there really is no substitute for actually giving a shit about each other.

Time and time again we look for systemic solutions, policy changes, and “leaders” who will create innovative new technologies to serve the masses, all while disregarding the basic, bedrock fact that our American culture isn’t built on caring for each other and uplifting community.

A vaccine won’t save us. To date, while the vaccines that have been approved have shown to prevent vaccinated individuals from developing an illness from the virus (if they have both shots), it is completely unknown whether they will keep the vaccinated individual from carrying the virus and transmitting it to others. Meaning that, because there is no way every single individual in your vicinity will receive the vaccine for a number of reasons, if we are to prevent spread of the disease, we will still have to practice the same social distancing and protective measures we have been living with for most of 2020. And people who can’t have the vaccine because of their health status will be at increased risk the more that others go back to “business as usual,” forcing them to even more severely curtail their social activities.

It will take years to know what the effect of these vaccines is on individuals and the collective, so what are we going to do in the meantime? Looking to other countries whose culture is more about belonging to each other, we can learn how to mitigate some of the devastating effects of this disease on community. Much of the upset about small businesses closing has to do with people losing their ability to pay rent and eat with any sort of regularity. We can fix that. There is enough money. We have enough money to test people often and accurately, we have enough money to ensure that health care workers have the proper equipment. We have enough money to ensure that landlords and tenants are taken care of and nobody loses their home. We have the resources to feed and house every single person in this country while we wait to learn more about how best to develop medications to fight Covid, what effect vaccines will have, and why some people don’t get sick from this virus while others are impacted heavily.

It’s a choice. The choice isn’t between whether or not to put kids back in physical school buildings. It’s not a choice between the economy or individual health. It is a choice between doing the hard work of making sure that every single person is as cared for on a basic level as they can be and pretending that there is some magic bullet out there and all we have to do is find it.

There is no magic bullet. There is only us. And, I’ll say it again, there is no substitute for actually giving a shit about each other.

image of a multicolored compass

Alvesgaspar, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Some people begin their year with a specific word in mind that grounds them and serves as a compass of sorts. It’s not something I’ve ever done with any regularity, and I doubt I’d have been able to really intuit one in January that would have been accurate in any way, but now that we are nearly at the end of this year, I can look back and see that most everything I did and thought about and experienced this year boils down to relationship.

It seems odd, given that most of my time has been spent without the physical presence of loved ones and the work I have done is remote and facilitated by technology. Neither of those things seems particularly conducive to creating relationship, but I have learned more about the power of connection this year and focused on the qualities of relationship that are most impactful more than I ever have in my life. I have spent time deepening my relationship to myself and trying to rebalance the wisdom I receive from my head with the wisdom held in my body through meditation and a rage ritual. I have created connection with local communities to offer assistance and I have witnessed the awesome power of mutual aid groups. I have considered how so many of our public systems are failing us and begun to realize that the only way to counter those failings is through relationship.

I joined with others across the globe every day at the same time for 30 minutes for 100 days in a row to say a lovingkindness meditation for all beings. I didn’t know the vast majority of the others at the beginning of the 100 days, but since then, we have formed virtual support groups to help each other with everything from motivation to get off the couch and shower to grieving the loss of loved ones with humor and grace. I joined a weekly Zoom meeting hosted by Charter for Compassion and Citizen Discourse that also gathers people from across the globe. Every Thursday we journal for a few minutes, have individual conversations about things like ritual, legacy, and what community means, and come together as a group to deepen our relationship to compassion and humanity. I have met people with whom I share text messages and emails and our connection is no less real and tangible because it was formed online.

The most recent conversation we had was around our own personal compass – what drives us, where are we headed. And while each of the individuals on the call had a different perspective and way of answering that question, we agreed in the end that the common thread for us all was connection of some sort. And because our conversations often delve into the philosophical, we also explored the notion of a compass. It occurred to me that it is important to note that a compass is useless in a vacuum – meaning that it only works within the context of the electromagnetic pull of something bigger, something grounding (in this case, the Earth). And so while each of us may have our own compass, the principle on which it exists is that we are all connected to something larger that helps guide us. We can, of course, choose to stick that compass in our pocket and go off on our own path, but the quality of guidance is always present and available to us. And because it is available to each and every one of us, we are necessarily connected, whether we acknowledge it or not.

I say often that human beings are designed to be in relationship. Our biological systems work more efficiently when we are in trusted relationships and suffer in isolation. Students who have supportive relationships with their teachers learn better. Elders who are ill heal faster and have less pain when they are surrounded by loved ones. So while I mourn the lack of physical contact with my beloveds and desperately miss the coffee dates and hiking adventures with friends, I have also deepened my definition of what relationship is – relationship to myself and my physical body, relationship with my community, relationship with people I’ve never met in person – and come to understand the power of letting those connections evolve over time. I have explored what it means to have healthy boundaries that are temporary in order to repair harms and what it looks like to shift my definition of a mother-child relationship as my daughters become young adults and want a different kind of bond with me that is no less elemental or meaningful than it ever was – it’s just different.

While there is much to be sad about this year – the loss of my mother and the missed adventures I had planned and the cancelled book tour among them – I can look back on the last 12 months and see what I have gained in stretching my understanding of this most basic need for connection and community in my life. Like the grounding of the Earth to my compass, relationship and connection are always available to me so long as I recognize them as an elemental part of my existence. Here’s to unexpected lessons that help us all thrive. May 2021 bring more wisdom and insight to us all.

Picture of a tall, slender, lit Christmas tree in a living room

This time of year always means I think about capitalism more than I normally do. And this year has been one where I have been more acutely aware of capitalism than ever in my life, so you might imagine that my brain is pretty full right now.

I love this time of year because I often spend it poking through local shops for hours, hoping to find fun, quirky little things to tuck inside my kids’ Christmas stockings. For some reason, over the years, stockings have become my ‘thing,’ and it often means that the contents spill outside of the knitted socks and have to be carried to the girls with two hands. As a kid, our stockings were filled with walnuts and hazelnuts (that we took great delight in using the nutcracker to shell and then discarded shortly afterward), mandarin oranges, and, on a good year, an entire book of Life Savers rolls. I have strayed far from that tradition, to be sure.

Whether it was designed cleverly or just worked out that way, there is a reason capitalism has deep hooks in us that take effort to remove. But for me, the first step in that unhooking is an honest evaluation of how capitalism is antithetical to health and well-being.

Screen shot of the Cliffhanger game on The Price is Right

As a system, capitalism was sold to us as something sustainable, and it is ridiculous that we believed it. There is no way anything can grow and grow without ever hitting a wall – it will either consume all of the resources around it or collapse on itself or both, which is what I think we are experiencing right now. We are led to believe that the stock market can keep hitting higher highs, that businesses can increase their profits year over year, and that we can make more money every year if we just work hard enough. Like any system, growth can happen to a point, but there is nothing that can grow forever, and human beings weren’t designed to grow and grow and grow without rest.

Capitalism is the opposite of health and well-being because it forces us to value things that are external – more shoes and clothes, a bigger paycheck, a new car every few years. But external values are things over which we have no control – we could get downsized or fired tomorrow, those things we buy can fall apart quickly, the housing market can explode so that we’re not able to afford our home anymore. Capitalism taps into our basic human need for security, but it doesn’t provide it – in fact, it keeps us constantly searching and believing that we will never truly be secure unless we are earning more and spending more. Capitalism also taps into our basic human need for autonomy, but that, too, is an illusion. Sure, we get to make choices about where we work and live and the things we buy, but only to a point, because under this system, we are never truly in charge of our own lives – not if the things we value are external.

Capitalism is also something that keeps us in fear. It relies on workers being expendable and interchangeable, which means that we as workers are always competing with each other ever so slightly more than we are cooperating. And because fear is a barrier to relationship, it means that we can’t ever hope to truly build strong, sustainable networks or communities under capitalism. Capitalism is threatened by unions (read: relationship), and relies on workers believing that they need to constantly fight to do better, be more visible, climb over their co-workers. It sells us the illusion that it’s possible to continually make more money, achieve more success, get a better position, but the slots at the top narrow so rapidly that it’s impossible for that to be reality.

Capitalism gave us disposability because it relies on it. Single-use items mean that we are constantly needing to purchase replacements. It’s not an accident that Apple comes out with a new version of the iPhone every single year, each with a slightly new set of features. That’s by design – businesses need us to want the newest thing in order to make their sales goals. Capitalism is just another one of the systems that has successfully adapted to center itself over time so that the most important thing is capitalism. It’s why we talk about “the economy” in every political debate, it’s why we fight to send our kids to a “good college” so they can get a “good job” that pays well enough for them to buy cars and homes and trips and clothes. It is why boards of directors are fearful of poor sales and offer dividends to shareholders. It is why wages are kept artificially low and we have no universal healthcare. Capitalism is so all-encompassing that non-profit organizations have bent to its rules, insurance companies are not in the business of taking care of people’s health but are vitally interested in their own profits, school systems have formed their curricula around the kinds of things that will ensure kids get into four-year colleges rather than focusing on learning skills and cultivating passions. There are many systems in this country that are powerful and broken, but capitalism is the one steering the ship, and we all just keep shoveling coal into the steam engine.

Two people walking together on a cobblestone path

Like all systems, I am reminded that the antidote to capitalism is relationship. When we can fight the urge to live in fear and build strong, connected communities, we can begin to release ourselves from the grip of capitalism. Capitalism is the reason so many people in the US are going hungry, and new systems (food banks) won’t fix it. If they could, they would have done so already. But relationship helps. The dozens of small, community-based mutual aid groups in my area alone that have mobilized to cook meals, deliver food, raise cash, and source items for people in need are combating food insecurity better and faster than bureaucracy ever could (even as they fight bureaucracy in order to do the work they do).

Building authentic relationships rooted in trust and love takes time, to be certain. It takes effort and a willingness to examine our fears and biases and tendency to see other people as competitors. We have to be willing to be a little bit afraid or at least a little uncomfortable, and forge ahead, knowing that relationship and community are what truly meet our basic human needs for safety, security, feeling valued, and having an impact. When we build communities whose values are intrinsic, we are necessarily reinforcing the belief that all of us are important, none of us is disposable, and that there is enough to go around so long as we cooperate. Living under capitalism means that millions of people go hungry while billions of pounds of food goes to waste. It means that business executives make and hoard more money than they could ever use while other people live on pennies a day. It means that workers spend dozens of hours a week doing jobs they hate because it is the only way they can feed their families and keep their health insurance.

Unions don’t threaten the health and well-being of companies or executives, they threaten to upset the imbalance of wealth between workers and executives. When the biggest argument against any sort of pay increase or new benefit for people is that it “costs too much,” we have become far too focused on money. If we are more concerned with the stock market rising or falling than we are about people living on the streets in cardboard boxes and the hours’ long lines at food banks, we have succumbed to the lure of capitalism to our detriment. It is true that money is necessary to survive, but only because we made it that way. It is possible to do things differently.

When we are in relationship with one another and really rooted in the values of community, dignity, respect, and safety for all of us, the values of capitalism begin to fall away. I don’t have to fear you or be in competition with you if I trust that our connection is about both of us being well and cared for. Systems like capitalism rely on hierarchies – someone has to be “in charge” and then there are layers of folks beneath that, all with an assigned ‘worth’ in the form of pay. Relationships suffer under hierarchies. If I think that I am more important or worthy than you, we will never have an equal, honest, loving relationship. But when we can build communities that acknowledge that we all have things to offer the group and that we all deserve to ask for support where and when we need it, there is no scarcity, there is trust, and there is safety.

Capitalism falls apart when we aren’t competing with each other for jobs, for goods and services. Capitalism falls apart when we acknowledge abundance. Communities thrive with a belief in abundance. The truth is, there is enough to go around, but we have built a world view that doesn’t acknowledge that. We have built economies that rely on scarcity to drive up the cost of goods so that those at the top of the hierarchy benefit, and when the cultural values are about having an abundance for yourself, the notion that any one of us could find ourselves rolling in piles of money or sitting in a house whose garage is full of more cars than we can drive is seductive. Even though the vast majority of us will never attain that, because we’ve been taught that that ideal is achievable if we just work hard enough, we hold out hope. But we all know people who work hard every day and are nowhere near owning their own home.

Capitalism is rooted in individualism, which means not only that we have to compete with each other, but that we feel as though our failures are our own and not the way the system is designed. We blame ourselves for not working hard enough, for not finding the right mentor, for not having the right college degree. We resolve to try harder, get more financially literate, get more connections on LinkedIn.

Ultimately, it is only in relationship where our most basic psychological needs are met. And in a world where the material goods are plenty, it is relationship that threatens capitalism the most. Talking to each other about our respective rates of pay, our experiences with toxic workplace culture, and our ideas for how to band together to create more support for all workers begins to erode the scarcity mentality. When we come together in relationship and our psychosocial needs are met, we might discover that buying more things isn’t really all that soothing after all. We might discover that the system is set up for the sake of the system and that it doesn’t really care about us or the environment. We begin to acknowledge that capitalism is designed to make us believe that there will never be enough, and we begin to realize that human beings can’t thrive in a system where we are forced to always strive for more and compete with each other more than we cooperate.

So while I will continue to carefully select gifts for my beloveds this time of year (and probably spend more money than I ought to), I will also do my part to build community, to strengthen relationships, and to help those around me acknowledge their worth outside of their employment or the size of their paycheck. I will fight against the tendency to value things that the system tells me I should value and I will put my energy toward dismantling this broken system that holds so many hostage and erodes our connections to each other.

blue background with image of light blue cartoon dog in profile sitting and holding it's head with an anxious expression on it's face

https://giphy.com/gifs/regret-oh-man-arrepentido-kD59Y2omlC44mOqS7v

I don’t know anyone who isn’t feeling at least a strong undercurrent of anxiety right now. Even if they can’t name it, there is a vibe, an energy going around. I’ve been asked by nearly everyone I come in contact with how I’m planning to handle Election Day – am I worried, will I watch the news, pay attention to social media, or steer clear and find some way to self-soothe.

I attended a group meditation on Sunday evening and one of the messages that came through in response to someone’s concerns about how to “show up” and respond this week, how to prepare for the unknown, was really profound. The meditation was led by Doctora Rosales Meza, an indigenous healer, and she said, “If you are waiting for something to happen in order to decide what to do, you’ve already given away your power.”

She’s right.

If, instead, we find a way to ground ourselves in what we know about who we are, if we set an intention to act from that place of love or compassion or what we feel about our own purpose, then there is no moment of decision. We show up the same way we show up every single day because that’s who we are.

We also talked about energy, and how destructive things feel right now, and how we can choose to only recognize destructive energy, or we can acknowledge that there is also an opportunity to create right now, to make something from the ashes, in the void that is left behind by those things that have broken apart. And I was reminded of something I teach adolescents as part of The SELF Project curriculum: namely that energy simply is. It cannot be created or destroyed, it can only move, and it moves in accordance with the environment it exists within. Meaning, that it has no preference, and it is us that assigns it “positive” or “negative” qualities, that push or pull, channel or shape it. We can stand squarely in its path or step out of its way, we can harness it to create something new or to dismantle or destroy something.

So what do I know about myself? What is important to me about me? How have I shown up, not only this year, but for most of my life? I value curiosity, courage, advocacy, listening, learning. I use my voice and my actions to make change in my immediate community wherever I can, with the intent of creating relationship. And it is in this, it seems, where my “marching orders” lie: I can continue to show up to support relationship, to remain open to new information and see where the barriers are to community. That is what I can offer, that is where my power lies, and I’m not giving that away for anything.

How are you choosing to show up? Where do you need support from others? How can I help?

photo & caption credit @jenlemen

Food is my love language. Or, more precisely, feeding other people is how I show my love and affection for them. There is nothing I love more than a house full of people that I can cook for and with, or sitting down to a table with those I adore to share a meal that I’ve provided or paid for. It makes my heart sing.

Which is why it makes sense that nearly five years ago, I responded to a call for volunteers at my local food bank – the smallest one in the city that serves a population of unhoused folks, women and children living in domestic violence shelters, and members of the community at large.

Like many food banks, pre-Covid19, we were structured much like a grocery store or farmer’s market. People came on foot, by bus, or private car to shop for items on our shelves and from the fresh produce we received once a week thanks to the generosity of a local church congregation.

Like many food banks, our funding was a mix of private donations, state funds, and federal funds – a complex system of receiving surplus food from the USDA, deliveries from the state non-profit that serves all food banks in Washington, purchasing items to fill in the gaps with cash we got from private patrons and fund-raising events. We served a particular slice of the community, many with unique needs. Folks without homes came to get food that doesn’t require refrigeration (or a can opener). Folks from Asian communities particularly preferred the weeks when we had bok choy and garlic on offer. Many of the women in the shelters had a desperate need for diapers and feminine hygiene items and were delighted when we had birthday cakes or cupcakes to help their kids celebrate special occasions. Larger households took whole chickens or bags of flour, while single folks living in shelters with just a mini-fridge and a microwave preferred frozen meals and a half-dozen eggs to bigger portions. It wasn’t perfect by any means – we often had a surplus of dried beans and received strange items that didn’t sell in traditional stores or sixteen cases of soda would show up at once – but we were able to stretch our donor dollars to fill in the gaps and donate huge bulk items to shelters that cooked communal meals for their residents.

But since March, it has become increasingly clear that this system is irrevocably broken and it is my strong opinion that food banks, on the whole, will never be able to meet the needs of our communities. It is time for a new solution and it will require a lot of courage and creativity and a willingness to dismantle the incredibly complex and wasteful system we have created over the last 50 years. I want to be absolutely clear that this is not an indictment of the food bank with which I am affiliated or, frankly, any food bank or volunteer or paid staff at all. This is an indictment of the system we have created that is not capable of rising to this moment in history in a way that is consistent with social justice. Let me explain:

In our county alone, during the pandemic, the number of households seeking food assistance from food banks has more than doubled. Unfortunately, because individuals are not allowed to visit food banks to choose the food they need for their particular circumstance, that means food banks have to prepare boxes of food for everyone and deliver them. In March, we scrambled to figure out how to make that happen, sending out a checklist to our regular clients and personalizing boxes for them. Needless to say, this didn’t last long. It took us hundreds of hours to go through our entire inventory, pick items off of the shelves and put them in boxes, label them, and ensure that they got on the correct delivery vehicle. It was simply impossible to do that for every client we had. And the clients who had no address to deliver to were simply unable to get food from us.

Within weeks, we had pivoted to making hundreds and hundreds of the same boxes so that everyone got the same mix of things. We were still working hard to ensure that we filled the gaps – soliciting donations of sandwich bread from Franz Bakery (who absolutely came through and delivered 200 loaves of fresh white bread every single week for months on end), purchasing oatmeal packets and cans of chili to supplement our boxes, and continuing to receive fresh produce every week – but the deliveries that came from Food Lifeline were simply what they were – we couldn’t control what we got. And this meant that during Ramadan, the only fresh meat we got for weeks on end was pork. One week, it meant that we received 400 5# cans of baby corn – one for each household. That is a bowling-ball-sized can of baby corn, for every single client. The following week, that huge can was filled with mandarin oranges and the week after that, it was green beans. If I am Muslim or Jewish and I don’t want pork to even cross the threshold of my home, I’m out of luck when I get that box of food. If I live in a shelter with just a mini-fridge for storage, once I open that giant can, what do I do with the remaining food? It will take up half the space in my refrigerator.

By April, the state of Washington was spending $5.5 million per week supporting Food Lifeline. The National Guard was enlisted to deliver food to area food banks and work in FL’s warehouse, and King County had agreed to use their Access buses and drivers to deliver the food to our clients. Everyone was trying to make this work. Where we previously had volunteers one day a week, because of the increased workload and social distancing needs, we now had folks there three days a week and we were still behind. And as someone with celiac, I often packed boxes with the realization that, were it my family this was going to, we would have to discard at least half of the items we received because we would get sick if we ate them. At one point, we had a caseworker at one of the shelters call us and essentially drop out of the program because the amount of wasted food was building up in their common areas and it was untenable. The boxes we sent simply had too much food or the wrong kind of food for their residents (I’ve never tried to cook a whole chicken in a microwave or on a hot plate, have you?)

At some point, Food Lifeline decided that they would pack boxes for all of the food banks and simply deliver them to us. They had the National Guard, after all, and the feedback they were getting was that it was too much work for each individual food bank to make up these boxes. But the boxes still came with items that were not useful to so many people, and we ended up supplementing with toilet paper and bread, pancake mix and fresh produce. We were still working three days a week to get food to our families, and as things opened up, the Access buses went away – leaving us to put out a call for volunteer drivers to deliver food to hundreds of clients. Unhoused folks were still not able to get food from us because of Covid19 restrictions.

I became increasingly frustrated. I am not an expert on every nuance of the program. As I said before, it is incredibly complicated. Food Lifeline gets shipments of food from the USDA and passes them on to food banks. That food ranges from meat and dairy to canned and frozen goods and it is often in massive quantities (in my understanding, it’s surplus food that can’t be sold – often from crops that the federal government subsidizes despite the fact that there isn’t a big enough market for them). In addition, they order food from other sources and then each food bank is offered an opportunity to order those items to be delivered along with their regular shipment – these are things like rice and applesauce and juice, and they cost us, but it is often a race to get them before they’re sold out to the bigger food banks. Our numbers changed every week, so often if we ordered 200 of the prepacked boxes, by the time we got them the following week, we actually needed 208, or maybe there were ten too many and we had to figure out how to store the extra. Every week, we either had some households that didn’t get emergency boxes, or we had trouble finding space in our refrigerators and freezers for the surplus food.

I began thinking about the waste in this system. At one end, there is someone packing up the food items from the USDA program on to trucks to ship it to every state. That is time, effort, and gasoline, from the packing to the driving to the unloading of the trucks. At the other end, there are folks dismantling those packages, storing and/or repackaging them in to smaller boxes (called Emergency Boxes during Covid19), putting them on trucks, and driving them to individual food banks. That is time, effort, and gasoline. At each individual food bank, there are folks unpacking those trucks, opening every box, supplementing the items, stacking them, and putting them in individual cars for delivery to shelters and households. That is time, effort, and gasoline. And at the very end, if you open a box that contains items you can’t eat (and many honestly ended up redonating back to their local food bank – I can’t tell you how many times that happened), what is the cost of the hundreds of hours of time people spent moving and packing that food and the gasoline it took to get it from Point A to Points B, C, and D, and the toll it takes on the planet in terms of carbon emissions? And who benefits from this system working this way?

If the goal is to help people who need food, we are doing it wrong.

As this is all happening, local restaurants and grocery stores and farmer’s markets are suffering, too. And the obvious solution seems to me to be giving people money to buy the food they need. Not only does that reduce the amount of wasted time, effort, gasoline and food, but it would enable these folks to have the flexibility and dignity of getting their own needs met. If my six-year old is having a birthday, I can use some of that money to get a cake. If I need formula for my baby, I can buy it with that money (because I guarantee you food banks are not getting formula from the feds or the state right now). And, in doing so, I can support my hyperlocal economy – the shops in my neighborhood, my local farmer’s market. I can even order takeout one night if I’m overwhelmed and tired from a long day of work and helping my kid navigate online school.

With the current system, every household gets the same thing. So if I’m a 67-year old single person with hypertension and diabetes, I get the same items and the same volume of food as a household with seven people. There is no way to individualize the boxes, and what happens to the extra food? Anecdotally, I can tell you it either gets thrown away or donated back to food banks. Both of which are a complete waste of the time, effort, money, and gasoline that it took to get it to the client.

I have spoken with two county council members, written op-eds that were either ignored or rejected, and vented to my fellow volunteers and friends and family about this for months. People are horrified and then they shrug. What’s to be done? It’s a huge system. We can’t change it.

The other reaction I get is one of discomfort with my proposed solution: What if you give people money and they don’t spend it on food?

I believe that is a cop-out. If you have ever been hungry or unsure of where your next meal is coming from, you may get how scary that is, how elemental the need for food is. If you’ve ever been tasked with providing for loved ones and you couldn’t figure out how to feed them, you may have a hard time being cynical about giving people money for food.

Also, so what? If some people choose not to spend that money on food, that is their choice. The amount of money we would need to give to people to feed themselves is a drop in the bucket compared to what we spend nationally and locally packing, transporting, unpacking, repacking, transporting, unpacking, repacking, and transporting food to food banks and people in need. And we still aren’t reaching everyone (remember, unhoused folks don’t get food delivered to them during the pandemic). So even if a tiny bit of that food aid money is wasted on a few individuals who buy other things, it is nothing compared to the state-sanctioned waste that is happening right now every day in this current system.

And if I think about the kinds of things that aren’t food that people could use this money for, frankly, I’m fine with it. If someone needs tampons or diapers or ibuprofen or cat food, they should be able to buy those things. Why do we think we deserve to scrutinize poor people’s shopping lists when we would never do that to anyone else? I guarantee you I’ve got neighbors whose spending on alcohol went up exponentially during the last six months, but I’m not going through their pantry casting judgment on them for eschewing fresh produce and whole foods in favor of Entenmann’s and Kendall Jackson. It’s. None. Of. My. Business.

And don’t give me “they’ll buy drugs.” If we simply increase the SNAP benefits, add money to folks’ EBT cards, offer those programs to unhoused people and others who haven’t hit the threshold before, that’s not an issue. Last I checked, you can’t go in to your local pot shop and get a few grams with your EBT card.

I will say again, I am not an expert on the system and how it works. I am certain that it would take a great deal of effort to dismantle this system and some folks would lose their jobs. But the vast majority of folks who are involved with food banks in this country are volunteers and if they are like me and the goal is to make sure people are fed, then they won’t mind at all. The waste and inefficiency I have witnessed over the last several years and the fact that we still aren’t helping people get the food they need when they need it is overwhelming. We can’t just throw more money in to the system and hope to solve the problems – we have to put money in the hands of those who need it and I promise you, the effect in each local community would be enormous.

I am so proud of the work we are doing to help our community and I dearly love all the folks who work their butts off every day within this broken system. I have no beef with them – it’s the system I want to see go away.

If this speaks to you, please share it with folks you know. All comments must be respectful, productive, and relevant or they will be deleted.

From the time I was born, I was taught that my body was a tool to be manipulated, to be controlled by my mind, rather than a source of wisdom. I think that is a pretty Western, patriarchal, colonialist principle, to be honest, and I’m working hard to break free from it.

My body could be seen as a source of information, to be sure, but that is very different from being a source of wisdom. It could tell me when I was full enough, when I’d injured myself, if a pan was too hot to touch. But I was never taught that I could cultivate a two-way conversation between my mind and my body, that there is in fact no hierarchy, no ultimate authority of thought over sensation.

Many of us are taught that our bodies will betray us – calling for sugar or alcohol or drugs, ignoring the need for regular movement, and breaking down over time. Even though addiction manifests in both the mind and the body, we are taught that it is our mind’s job to control it, and if we can’t do so with our “willpower,” there are pharmaceuticals that can help us. We are taught that “willpower” is all we need to eat without gaining weight, to embark on a rigorous exercise routine, to quash our desire to lash out physically when we are frightened or angry.

Traditional healers use medicine to support the body as it heals itself, believing that body wisdom is vital to recover from disease. Western medicine increasingly circumvents body wisdom, overriding the symptoms which are designed to alert us to how our bodies are working to heal themselves. Fever reducing medications are designed to make us physically more comfortable, antibiotics are meant to supplant the body’s response to a bacterium rather than support the natural immune response our bodies have already mounted. Again, this affirms the belief that our bodies are unreliable and ineffective and require containment or manipulation.

But what if we recognized that our our bodies are sources of deep knowing, and when we ignore the messages in favor of our thoughts or beliefs, our bodies don’t just give up? We are energetic beings as well as cognitive ones. We receive energy all day every day from a multitude of sources, and when we don’t allow the conversation to happen between our bodies and our minds, that energy sits, pools in places where it can’t be utilized or transformed, and it can cause our bodies to amplify the messages in order to get us to pay attention.

We have been trained, however, that it is a good thing when our minds take over; that control is the goal, rather than listening. When I am traumatized, rather than sitting with the fear and sadness my body is experiencing, really paying attention to where that shows up in my body (does my gut tighten? Do I feel nauseous or a sharp pain somewhere?), I was taught to immediately discern whether the threat was imminent, whether it was something I could manage on my own, whether anyone else was experiencing it (and thus, could validate it -meaning that my own bodily response wasn’t valid without a witness), and how to calm the reaction in my body or eliminate it altogether. Often, that meant ignoring it as an attempt to stop the unpleasant feelings or minimizing it because I didn’t want to appear weak or “crazy.”

None of those reactions honors the wisdom in my body. None of those reactions allows the energy time or space to move and transform and ultimately, leave my body. If I am traumatized again in a similar fashion, generally, my physical reaction is the same – I feel the same kinds of things in the same places. Over time, the energy from these experiences continues to sit in my body, unmetabolized, and wreak havoc. (For more on this, read Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score). But if I can learn to cultivate a practice where I listen to that body wisdom and honor it without immediately jumping to control it with my mind, I can begin to alchemize those pockets of energy and use them to heal.

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed – it simply moves and morphs. But it can be stored, and it is my belief that energy that is not moved or transformed remains trapped in our bodies, and that is both a waste and harmful. Even if you haven’t experienced significant trauma in your lifetime, you have likely absorbed energy from extraordinary events that lies unmetabolized within your body. We do the same thing with joy – often denying ourselves the full experience of it by explaining it away with survivor’s guilt (“I don’t deserve to be this happy while others are suffering”) or worrying that it will be followed up by disaster (“nothing can go this well for long – something bad is bound to happen now”) or by simply being modest and not celebrating our efforts.

Our bodies and brains are designed to work together – the intricate mechanisms of hormone secretion and neural connections bind our physical sensations and our thoughts together. It is meant to be a two-way conversation, a fluid, symbiotic relationship, and yet many of us are taught that our bodies are, at best, unreliable witnesses and, at worst, bent on betraying us. But if we look at the way children pay attention to their bodies before we indoctrinate them in to this kind of thinking, we can see the wisdom there. Children cry when they are overwhelmed, which releases excess cortisol and decreases stress. Often, they refuse to eat when they aren’t hungry and/or have aversions to specific foods that it turns out they have allergies to. Massage therapists who work with children know that when they ask a child to focus on a specific part of their body and relax or flex a muscle, they are much more able to do so than adults are. Children sleep when they are tired, run around and play when they have a burst of energy they need to move, and can articulate where they feel things in their bodies with much more clarity before we teach them that their bodies are wild things meant to be tamed, controlled, altered, or ignored.

It is this hierarchical view of mind over body that causes us to compound harm and mistrust the signals we get from our bodies. Western medicine has long dismissed all but the most obvious signs of distress, often to the detriment of patients. The notion that mental health and physical health are two completely discrete, separate things, with the emphasis placed on physical health as being more immediate and valid, keeps us in this paradigm and reinforces the separation of body wisdom and mind wisdom. It prevents us from being able to metabolize and harness the energy stored in our bodies that could be used to create art, music, connections between us and others. And attempting to to re-establish the relationship between our minds and bodies is often incredibly difficult because many of us have dissociated from our bodies and are unable to identify what we feel and where. But there are ways to work through that and access that energy. It takes time and practice, but the reward of processing old traumas, accessing stuck energy, and growing into someone who can fully feel as you make your way through life is enormous, both for us as individuals and for our relationships.

This is the basis for the workshop Thereza and I have created. The goal is to help you reconnect to your body wisdom, find pockets of energy, and use movement (in this case, yoga) to release and metabolize that energy to create. You don’t have to be an artist or a writer to do this – all human beings enjoy creation of one sort or another. You simply have to be willing to open yourself up to the idea that moving energy through your body and learning to listen to it will ultimately enable you to live with your mind and your body in harmony. Feel free to reach out with questions about the workshop or about this concept. We look forward to guiding you through this work.

 

 

small stream bordered by lush greenery and dappled sunlight

Every once in a while I have these moments of absolute clarity about how traumatized we all are. How unhealthy is it that we are all expected to just keep getting up, working, helping our kids learn online, networking on LinkedIn and pretending like things are ok? There are children in cages. There are women in ICE custody who are being sterilized without consent. There are entire towns burning to the ground, millions of people on unemployment, hundreds of thousands dead from a virus. There are more storms forming over the ocean right now than ever before, and some areas on the West Coast of the United States are going on week four of air that is unsafe to breathe.

And yet, farm workers are out picking crops, college students are diligently logging on to their Zoom classes, and we are posting about November 4 as though it will be some magical day that will bring about a sea-change. If the culmination of so much pain and loss and collective grief doesn’t get us to pause, what will? I’m not talking about a General Strike (although, I’d be all in favor of that as a way to manage this), I am talking about the natural, physiological reaction human beings have to grief and loss, which is to slow down, absorb, feel the feelings, set aside what is not important and basic. We aren’t doing that. We aren’t giving ourselves the space to process the waves of trauma.

We are continuing to push forward, sometimes as a defense mechanism so that we don’t have to face the suffering, and other times because we know that the systems we have created will punish us for stopping to tend to ourselves as whole human beings. We have gotten so good at gaslighting ourselves – pretending as though what is most vital is to just keep going – that our bosses and landlords and parents don’t have to do it to us. We have swallowed the hook of capitalism that says that productivity will save us, that if we just put our heads down and keep working, “things will sort themselves out.”

I’m here to say that, even if things do sort themselves out, we will come out the other end of this traumatized and wounded and badly in need of rest and healing. What would it take for everything to stop for a bit – no school, no work that isn’t essential – so that we can nurture ourselves and our loved ones? What would it be like if we all took a week to just be in this overwhelm, to really settle in our minds and bodies around what is important, what our true basic needs are, and only focus on that?

What I know is that the thing that would feel best to me right now is to gather all of my beloveds in my home and cook for them. Play games and laugh and dance and nap. Walk the dogs and look at the trees turning color and sit around the table with a warm meal and the knowledge that we aren’t missing a damn thing out there in the world. That everyone else is doing the same thing with their beloveds, and if someone needs to cry, there are shoulders available. If someone needs a cuddle, there’s a sweet dog or little human there to sit with. And while that’s not possible on so many levels, even just imagining it calms my body and mind a bit.

What would it be like if we could all be honest with ourselves and each other about how damn hard this is, how scary and painful? What would it feel like to know that we are held in love by people we trust, and that whatever we feel is Real and True? That’s the world I want us to emerge in to. When the smoke clears and the rain and wind stop and the virus is vanquished, I want us to create a place where collective trauma is acknowledged and honored and rest is deemed more important than work.

Image Description: tent encampment in the plaza of a Federal Building

 

Nearly once a week a “discussion” erupts on my local NextDoor site in regards to homelessness (or, more accurately homeless people) in Seattle. My neighborhood is a mix of upper-income, middle-aged white folks in single family homes and younger, mostly white folks in townhomes that are rapidly gentrifying the area, with some families who’ve been here for generations thrown in. Mostly, those folks who have lived in this area for a long time are people of color, as this is the neighborhood where, historically, Black people were redlined to. (Yes, I am one of the gentrifiers, and that is something I grapple with quite a bit).

It happens like this: someone posts an angry or disgusted rant about homelessness or tent-camping in public parks getting “out of control,” the same five or six people chime in with questions about where these folks ought to be living instead, given the lack of housing and shelters in the city, and fifteen or twenty others clap back with comments about crime or garbage or needles and encourage the “libtards” to open their own homes to “these people.” It devolves from there, and it only ends because people get tired of having the same back-and-forth. At some point, another person will post something similar about a different area of town or an encounter they had with an unhoused person and it starts all over again.

In other cases, I have read stories of people really struggling with basic needs on social media, written by friends and acquaintances in an effort to highlight the challenges so many families are having, and read comments by folks who accuse them of fabricating these stories just to create division. Other commenters pile on, asking if the original poster did anything to help or were they just co-opting the story to make themselves look good.

Why do we do that? Why do we deflect and make these experiences about things they aren’t about? Instead of talking about the overwhelming numbers of people who are unhoused, we argue about “hygiene” or “cleanliness” or property values of homeowners living nearby. Instead of sitting with the knowledge that there are so many among us who can’t afford food or medication or are one disaster away from being unhoused themselves, we fight with each other about the veracity of these stories or yell at folks for not doing something Right Now.

Discomfort. I think that’s what it comes down to – who is able to sit with discomfort and who isn’t. It is incredibly painful to witness another human being suffering or struggling, and when it shows up in our own neighborhood, we can’t simply turn off the television or walk away. If you live across the street from a place where people have erected tents and are living without running water or enough food, it’s hard to shut it out. It takes courage to be a witness to suffering and to really acknowledge that the folks who are struggling are human beings who deserve care and comfort.

The city of Seattle created something they call “Find it, Fix it” for citizens to report issues that the city needs to address. It was designed to address infrastructure problems like potholes or stop signs that fell over or are obstructed by trees, but increasingly, it is being used by citizens who don’t like homeless people living in their neighborhoods. A few days ago, another resident of my neighborhood posted on NextDoor, imploring folks to flood the Find it, Fix it voice mail with concerns about a tent encampment in our area that just keeps growing. When I pointed out that tent camps are populated by people, not “it,” I was predictably met with the same arguments – the garbage, the needles (minus any evidence that there actually is any drug activity happening), the loud arguments coming from that area at night. One commenter wrote about loud arguments he heard coming from the tents at night, saying they frightened him because he was sure violence was imminent. But, I asked, if you were sitting out on your back deck relaxing and you heard your (housed) neighbors having a loud argument, would you feel unsafe? If not, is that because they are housed? Are you only frightened by people having public arguments who don’t have the privilege of being in a home they rent or own?

It is uncomfortable to admit that there are people who don’t have enough. It is more uncomfortable to witness it. The whole NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) paradigm isn’t about solving the problems our cities face, it is about making sure we don’t have to see it. The assertions about property values and cleanliness are thinly veiled attempts to say that some people are more deserving of comfort and care than others are. When we blame unhoused people for being unhoused, we are more able to see them as people not worthy of the same comforts we have. When we begin to believe that they are somehow fundamentally different from us, we are more likely to be afraid of them and imagine them to be unpredictable or somehow dangerous. When we blame poor people for being poor, we are divorcing ourselves from any responsibility to them as humans, as members of a community. We are assuming that their actions, their choices, have rendered them outside of the collective we belong to, and diminishing the reality that their basic needs are not being met and they are suffering.

But when we choose to witness the suffering of another as an equal human being, as a member of our community, we have to be able to sit with all the fear and sadness that brings up. My friend Nicci said the other day, “being a witness to suffering is much different than suffering with suffering.” Until we have practice acknowledging that someone is struggling and holding compassion for that without deflecting, we are simply suffering, whether we realize it or not. Sometimes we turn that suffering in to anger and resentment toward those people, and sometimes we try to deflect that in to action, to try and “fix” it. Our brains are so good at finding ways to keep us from feeling that it takes practice, and vigilance to learn to be a witness and sit with the discomfort. That doesn’t mean we can’t act, but the more we learn to be compassionate witnesses, the more likely we are to center the individual people in our search for solutions. This isn’t deflection, it’s transformation, it’s metabolizing our empathy and compassion to find ways to act that serve those who are suffering.

It’s the deflection that seeks to push the pain out of our visual range that is harmful, because it denies the humanity of others and our connection to community. We don’t get to be selective about the communities we belong to, no matter how hard we try. The fact is, we are all connected whether we like it or not. That is being shown every single day in a myriad of ways. I see posts from people about their struggles with family members who hold completely different political views than their own, anecdotes about others who were surprised to find that someone they wouldn’t normally choose to associate with was able to help them in some way, people who have to rely on others for assistance. We are all part of a community, like it or not.

I truly believe that most of the people who get indignant about homelessness and poverty are people who, if they really let themselves acknowledge what they’re feeling, are empathic. I think that the coping  mechanism they’ve developed to deal with the (very real) discomfort of witnessing suffering is anger and blame and if they allowed themselves to put that aside and really feel what they feel when they see a person who is unhoused or needs help with basic necessities, they might begin to feel more connected, and more empowered. I think that the instinct to share our views and feelings on social media is an attempt to build community, to ask others to validate our feelings and be witnesses for us, but ironically, it almost always devolves in to an argument about those who are suffering rather than an invitation to really witness what they are living with.