Another brick…

My head is pounding. Probably because the emotional brick wall I keep encountering just won’t yield no matter how many times I hit it. Stop hitting it, you say? If it were that easy…

I’m inspired by a recent Facebook distraction where a friend of mine tossed a Batman quote in my direction, and it may have been slightly misconstrued by those reading who may not have had the requisite Christopher Nolan watch history to bring understanding. (So props to P, good quote. No worries, mate.) Applying the quote to teaching, he made a joke about me being the teacher my students need, but not the one they deserve. Ok, so maybe that sounds a little weird taken out of context, but I’ve been spending some time thinking about why I continue to be a teacher, especially when I encounter so many of these amazingly stupid, redundant, madness-inducing larger-than-life Joker-inspired walls.

I became a teacher by accident. I don’t know if that is a common story for teachers but that is what happened in my case. I spent all of my schooling never thinking I would become a person standing in front of a room while people wrote down what I said.

Here’s the thing: I’d been spending all my graduate work focused on becoming a better therapist. I left my master’s program thinking my egg hadn’t hatched yet, so I wanted to incubate a little longer. That was a good decision. A lot of important things came together for me and at the conclusion of my program, I was definitely a much more skilled and capable counselor. But being the philosopher I can’t avoid, I also noticed the irony of counseling work that I still haven’t escaped to this day.

If you ever apply to a counseling program, at some point you’ll be asked, “why do you want to do this.” And what admissions committees don’t tell anyone is that we are looking out for the “because I want to help people” answer. We look out for it because this is what most people will write; it is also nearly meaningless. What does it mean to “help” people? What is helping? Before any of us set foot in a classroom, we all held rather naive ideas about helping and our ability to do it. Most of our ideas are illusions, props we tell ourselves to believe we are more powerful, effective, and important than we really are. Somewhere in there exists altruism, but this is in reality a very small piece. We are usually interested in helping ourselves, and even there we don’t really know what that looks like either.

So after a few years of deconstructing all this, we find that we can’t really “help” anyone, and we adopt a new language of “facilitating change.” This is step one towards accepting we can’t actually make people do things, no matter how much we try. But counselors come to realize they don’t want to make people do things, because we appreciate and value this thing called agency – someone’s ability to be active in their own life and work from their own will. However, the flipside is we can make things happen, and often when we don’t intend to. Unfortunately our history is filled with such examples where our good-intentioned selves managed to hurt large groups of mostly disenfranchised people by subjecting them to lousy research or prejudiced, discriminatory practices. Thus we do know we can make a difference, but more often we see the results from when our differences create more harm than good.

I found myself caught in the sideliner’s observation that while I am witness to the experience of pain, I am rarely present to the experience of change. We have all kinds of phrases about “the process” and when it works, it means we are working ourselves out of a job. This means “change” doesn’t usually manifest in front of my eyes; rather it is inferred from the stories a client shares with me, and I usually fan the flames of hope that it moves in preferred directions. For a person to become responsible for all they have done, they aren’t changing because I’ve said a magic phrase, but because they have made change a part of their life. Thus when I do a “good job,” I’ve also erased myself from the picture. It means at any particular moment when I’m counseling, I am simultaneously influential and non-influential, powerful and impotent.

Damn you existentialists.

purple_manThis is a frustrating state of being. But it is also core to how I work, because I am always balancing this dilemma, this ability to do and not do. You could say this is why we have to pay attention to ethics, because it becomes very easy to transform into the Purple Man.

All of this exists in the world of teaching, too. My role as a teacher isn’t to make people learn, but to create an environment where learning becomes possible. That is similar to how we talk about counseling, but in the classroom, my chances of being present to learning are much higher. Conversely, if learning isn’t occurring, I will see it immediately, and not just in test scores. Any teacher who has ever seen 30 faces check out all at once knows exactly what I’m saying.

For me to be a teacher, I’ve had to do a lot of work that includes regularly challenging myself and stepping well outside my comfort zone. I find myself influencing the potential for learning every time I’m in the room and I am always shifting between stepping into the mix and stepping out. Every group is different, every class forming its own personality and way of interacting. I never give the same lecture twice, and I never know where the class will end up. This doesn’t mean I take an “anything goes” attitude; rather learning morphs towards the path of the learner instead of forcing students into one identical mold.

That may sound a little weird since in recent times many think of school in a very business-oriented student-learning-outcome way and have reduced education to just memorizing times tables and spelling words. But education doesn’t end with basic skills, it starts there; ultimately education is about exercising and shaping a mind, a spirit, a being who is capable of interacting intentionally in the world. We’re not telling our students what to think, but how to think; the tools they must learn are the tools that empower them towards active freedom, not towards quiet subservience.

So when I say I get more chances to be present to learning, it means I get to see what I just described on a regular basis. Or at least, I am more likely to see it if I’m doing my job ethically, effectively, and earnestly. And I get to watch these students become counselors, people who are able to see the worth inside each person they work with. People who can sit in that existential dilemma so much more comfortably than I can because if learning took place, it taught them the most important lesson: they too are valuable because they exist, because they mean something and have a right to be here.

But this isn’t easy, and it is often thankless, and the obstacles to doing this work come from places you’d never imagine. That means I spend a lot of time banging my head against walls, and I’ll likely keep banging my head against walls. You’d think I’d have a thicker skull by now. But eventually there may be enough of us who’ve rediscovered our value as people to break through the wall, or maybe we’ll just walk off together and the wall will fall into obsolescence (Roger Waters was on to something, I think). I don’t know really; after all it’s just a metaphor. Enough speculation though, I have a lesson to prepare…

 

 

 

 

I’m Not Sayin’ I’m Batman But…

“Deep down you may still be that same great kid you used to be. But it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.” – Rachel Dawes (Batman Begins)

batmanYeah, yeah, I just started with a Batman quote, and I tried to make it look all important and flashy-like. It isn’t the first time I’ve stolen lines from Nolan’s film, and it won’t be the last (because…wait for it…).

This post is really meant to be about social justice (again). Batman and social justice sort of go together, or rather, in my comic-book influenced pop culture brain, I can make them go together because it’s my blog and I get to do things like that. The part of the quote I’m focusing on is the “what you do” phrase, as this is what I get asked most often: How do you DO social justice?

I also realize I’ve written on that theme in prior posts. So spoiler alert: this post concludes by stating in giant, bold letters that there is no magic formula for “doing” social justice. There is no step-by-step method, there is no correct action, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Sorry peeps, that’s just how it goes sometimes. I realize writing the summertime blockbuster, 7 Steps for Dramatic Social Action, would probably be an easier and more lucrative way to make a living than what I do now, but it’s not going to happen.

There is, of course, a place and time for talking about specific action points – for example, when you have a Stalin-esque presidential candidate making a real bid for the White House, concrete plans need to be written. But this post is more about looking at the day-to-day work of social justice, the “behind the scenes” work if you will. The stuff some of us have figured out is essential to getting anything done, but also the stuff that many people overlook and even forget.

I’m talking about relationships here, the art of making connections, especially with people you might not like or agree with.

Recently I found myself speaking to a group of people in a workshop setting. I have been doing things of this nature for many years, which means I am no stranger to our version of professional heckling: the wide range of odd, unusual, and sometimes blatantly arrogant questions that can come our way. While all seasoned teachers learn various useful and not so useful ways to respond, most of the time what you don’t want to do is get into an argument. And I can say that as someone who got sucked into at least one argument in my greener years, and regretted it fully (another spoiler: the teacher always looks like an idiot when arguing with a student, even if the student said something remarkably stupid. Because you’re the teacher, and you will look like a raving adult lunatic who decided to yell at, say, a puppy).

The hard part is some people do seem to have it be their goal to generate the most irrational and controversial commentary to plop on your lecture doorstep, particularly during the last 5 minutes of your presentation because they know full well there will be no time for you to offer even a bemused grunt much less a thoughtful acknowledgement. Yet when the topic is related to social justice, it is also often the case that this curiously timed remark carries suffocating undercurrents of privilege which will also undermine and dismiss just about every other person in the room who isn’t, for example, a rich white heterosexual male. And let’s just say that in a room of thirty mental health professionals, there aren’t too many rich white heterosexual males running around,wile_3366650b which means your educational train has just crashed Wile E. Coyote-style into a ravine.

This sort of thing happens to me a lot. But this is also supposed to happen, because if I’ve created a room where people can freely speak their mind, it means people will be able to disagree with me. So to shut down such comments contradicts my purpose, which is to open space for dialogue. However, I am also in a dilemma of how to permit comments that also have the potential to get a lot of people very, very angry in a very, very short amount of time. This is the balancing act that has no formula; it is felt and experienced and sometimes you tip the scale in the wrong direction. But balance is essential to creating any hope of the “successful resolution” we all crave at that moment.

So while my ego would prefer I say something along the lines of, “shut your face,” I know that would add a lot of hydrogen to this bomb. Instead I acknowledge this will take a few minutes, but would the speaker permit me a few questions in the hopes of understanding better the purpose of their message?

In other words,  you took the floor, so let’s take a moment to find out what you are really trying to put out there. Are you feeling ignored? Are you trying to “level the playing field?” Are you responding to a history of being accused? Do you fear your voice will be diminished? Is this simply not for you? The point is, I have no idea what drives someone to do this, but I must attempt to find out – which means setting aside all the irritation, frustration, and even justified anger I may have at what they did. Because the only hope at that moment in returning the room to a place of understanding is to do just that – create a connection with the person who feels out of place.

Will this solve all the social justice problems out there? No. But does it work? Yes – well presuming I am trying to understand and not simply appease. But that’s the very thing we’re trying to get across in building community – I am baffled and curious at what is being thrown at me, and I am more interested in the person behind it than the weirdness of the words. I don’t want to reject the person, I want to connect with them, because perhaps in our connection there is more potential to recognize the many lies our walls have been built on; to see how our barriers were not erected by us, but rather by those who profit when walls are maintained.

That’s the moment in the room though. What happens next? That’s the work most people never see. The part where the person and I meet, have a conversation, get to know each other. The part where we share a joke. The part where we share about our lives. The part where we walk away knowing behind those initial comments rests a person, someone with fears and hopes, someone who is reconsidering their “certainties” now that there is a face to replace something that once existed only as a stereotyped caricature. The part where we ask each other for help. The part where we start working together because we want others to realize that it is through exploring our differences that we develop a true appreciation and interest for each other.

It’s social justice work, conversation by conversation. Yup, it’s slow. There is no magic formula for “doing” social justice. Go figure it out, one person at a time.

Happenstance Happens…

I never knew how to answer the question, “what do you want to be when you grow up.” We seem to ask this of young children even though the likelihood of getting a coherent answer is minimal (“garbage collector,” “spy,” or “space ninja” are common responses). And growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s, the available models were not very well-developed; I spent some time believing a girl could only be a nurse, a stewardess, or a Charlie’s Angel.

As a working adult and mother of two, I get a new version of this question which is, “how did you know you wanted to be a ____________.” I admit having the fortune of  a highly active and fulfilling career, and I love and appreciate being a parent. But my answer to the question is somewhat of a letdown: “I didn’t know.” I was never one of those kids who had such certainty about what they wanted to do when they got older. Plans were often foisted on me, but they never really worked.

There were all kinds of things I was supposed to be and certainly things I wasn’t supposed to be. Not all of these impositions came from my family, by the way – society had a few words to say about what young, dark-eyed, dark-haired, biracial females can and can’t do. And let’s not even get into the whole not-conforming-to-stereotype gender thing. All of that is likely a different post, but the fact that I am not the typical face displayed on the postcard of success is likely why I get this question fairly often, particularly from women and pretty much anyone else who still colors outside the lines. It’s a question that really asks, “if you were able to find a place in the world, will I?”

Krumboltz developed the career theory called, “Planned Happenstance,” where career paths are established through unexpected events and experiences as opposed to a carefully directed linear plan. When I was in school, this theory was presented to us as the theory that doesn’t really work. It was probably taught this way because the theory contradicts the good ol’ American Dream, whereby with fierce determination one can achieve all goals as long as you stick to the plan, never quit, and take the heart medication necessary to keep you alive while you pour 125% of your lifeblood into reaching these goals.

It’s no surprise The American Dream never really worked for me as my dreams usually included visions of lying on the couch and watching television. This might explain why I silently questioned the dismissal of Krumboltz’ idea. Also this was the first career theory I’d heard that made sense in relation to my life, especially while taking a course in a degree program I had no idea about whether or not I actually wanted to finish. I was in graduate school, true, but partly because I wasn’t sure what else to do. I had to do something after finishing undergrad, and as I’d ended up in one of those fields that doesn’t get you very far with just a bachelor’s, graduate school was likely. I ended up in this particular degree program because 1) they accepted my application and 2) my then-fiance was also going to attend that university. But had I embraced the idea of becoming the Thing you were supposed to be after you completed the program? Not really. I wasn’t against it, I could explore it, and it definitely beat getting micromanaged at a desk job (I realize plenty of other people would’ve been fine with option #3, but I already had some glimpse that living as an office jockey would’ve resulted in me peeling my skin off flake by flake).

But as it happens, I got lucky – I found the subject intriguing and it led to a redefinition of purpose. I met some very good teachers who could show me why their career mattered to them. This particular program also challenged me in new ways, so I started learning very different kinds of skills. My interest in the arts found a way to mingle with my interest in science and there was a greater chance I could earn a living. There was still a great deal to learn but this little accident was working to my advantage.

Even though I graduated, the chicken was only half cooked so I decided to try for a doctoral degree program. At least this time I knew what to look for, but because I decided late about applying I had missed the deadlines for many programs. But luck struck again – one program still took applications, invited me for an interview, and accepted me. I guess they liked my responses to the question of where I saw myself in 5 years. I’m pretty sure I made up my answer, borrowing from something I read about a week prior to the interview about a particular specialty needing more people with doctorates to do such and such work. I wasn’t really interested in it, but “I’m just along for the ride” usually isn’t an acceptable reason to an admissions committee for getting into a program.

It is also possible the committee noticed that in spite of being a rudderless ship, I love learning. If I could’ve gotten paid for being a student, I’d have found the perfect job. So doctoral study suited me pretty well. However, doctoral work also cracked my naive veneer as I got my first taste of academia not being all that academically inclined. Feeling lonely and weird, I was the youngest in my class and many seemed to delight in reminding me of that fact. Freely generating my own ideas was exciting, but I still felt as though I was missing something. I promised myself if after a year I hadn’t found “it,” I would get out of the program and chase something else.

Something happened the semester before that year ended; it was as though a switch flipped and everything turned on. I found meaning in what I was doing and somewhere this thing called confidence crept in. A specialty revealed itself, connecting so many dots I wondered why I hadn’t seen it earlier. I liked what I was doing and I was certain I would continue in a clincially-focused career…until I took a class towards the end of my program that uprooted that illusory path.   I found a whole new interest that made everything point towards academia. Thus I birthed a dissertation and applied for professor jobs, again later than I should have, and yet managing to get an offer enabling me to literally defend my dissertation and move all in the same month.

That should be the end of the story, but really it was just Part 1 of the trilogy. The twists and turns that have taken me to today create a complicated and familiar tale. Volunteering for the unknown and stumbling into unexpected situations is the norm, not the exception. I suspect Part 2 is coming to a close, but Part 3 is still a mystery. I have no idea what the title, setting, or plot will be. Happenstance has become for me, a way of life.

I never knew what I could do when I was a kid because I never knew what I could do. That’s the unself-conscious world kids live in, though.  I was capable of everything and yet also capable of nothing. The people in my life said take it all and take nothing, shouting everything is right as long as you don’t do anything wrong. I had potential, and was reminded daily that squandering it would be a tragedy. But these expectations didn’t belong to me; they were prescribed by entities who insisted they knew better. Living someone else’s possibilities made others proud, but my identity scattered to the winds, floating away like burning leaves. But every time I stepped off the path, a new piece of me came into focus. When I tripped into the unknown, I discovered what was missing. A series of mishaps, stumbles, and wanderings created the rhizomatic stem that has become my “career.”

I’m an uncoordinated bumbler, adept at staggering into accidents. Pretty good way to make a living.

 

 

Line Dancing

“The terror of failure can make you feel like a failure. So a bunch of people think you’re not very good at your thing. How much do you invest in what they say? How much do you care? Failure is not putting yourself on the line.” – Dylan Moran

Jane Elliott (Eye of the Storm) spoke at my campus recently and I finally was able to see her. I have shown her Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes “experiment” in my classes and used her work to help students understand how racism and privilege get created and perpetuated. In short, Jane Elliott is a pit bull. She takes no “guff” from anyone and speaks the truth of racism bluntly, directly, and fearlessly. For example:

I admit, I’ve used that line in my own classes. It works. It also takes a good amount of guts to do it. I am not able to deliver my stuff the same way she does, but of course it would be foolish to try to be a copy of her. Her way of doing things is exactly that, her way. But my way can also be direct, challenging, controversial, and make everyone in the audience as uncomfortable as her audience. It is not an easy thing to do because it invites people to really, unreservedly, dislike you.

The thing is, I do like it when people like me. It’s kind of nice. But my adult life has been full of realizing that being liked and being respected are two very different things that often don’t lead to each other. And that means I get a lot of people not liking me.

What has baffled me about this is most of the time though, I’m not really intending to be controversial. Challenging classroom scenarios aside, most of the time I seem to set people off just by asking a question or making an observation. Lately I seem to be getting serious criticism because I keep noticing when someone breaks the rules. But even there it is a matter of me saying, “what did you do?” and then someone curses me with the fury of their ancestors.

It isn’t always that naive though, as I’ve written plenty of times about needing to speak up in order to identify injustice or highlight bias or instigate change. That definitely doesn’t win popularity contests. So there I am choosing to enter a situation where my likability will be questioned, even threatened. And I often find myself thinking in the middle of an altercation, “why the heck did I do this again?” If I would just keep my mouth shut, people could just like me and I wouldn’t have so many sleepless nights.

Except it wouldn’t really happen that way, I think. It’s true that if you spend your time being pleasant and conciliatory, you’ll have way fewer arguments. But what would really get done? In my own experience, I had plenty of times when I went along for the sake of going along. Perhaps I wanted to be part of the crowd, or was afraid of an argument, or not sure if my stance was worth defending. I could just say the thing that makes someone else feel good, or the thing that distracts from what is going on, and keep things simple. But it never really did make anything simple, because then I’d leave and think to myself, “why did I do that. Why did I go along with that stupid thing.” And when my eyes opened up to see how keeping my thoughts to myself mostly allowed other people to be overlooked, ignored, or even mistreated, it became much harder to justify why my comfort was more important than their humanity.

So I learned to say things. I later found out that many people do actually appreciate me saying things, whether I am deliberately controversial or innocently inquiring. Some have even said that it was validating, because they found out that someone else had the same thought they did. This led to me eventually building the confidence to keep talking. After enough arguments, it also led me to realize that the worst thing that happens in an argument is: having an argument. People get mad and say dumb things. The truly hard part is staying cool and not saying dumb things. But I learned I can do that too.

But it does mean I spend a good portion of my time being disliked.

What people don’t realize is that even when someone like me learns how to take such experiences as the norm, it doesn’t mean that we don’t get hurt in the process. It is not fun to have someone shout at you, call you names, criticize your work until you want to bleed from your ears. I get filled with doubt, I want to go home and hide under the duvet and not come out for several years. I will ask myself over and over again, what is wrong with me. Just shut up already. No One Cares.

I’m writing about all this because lately I have felt particularly disliked. It is not easy to bounce back and sometimes I don’t want to. I have spent several sleepless nights of late debating in my head if I should just pack it all in. Things were supposed to get easier, and yet I think it all really got harder. Will it ever end?

And then I get to see Jane Elliott, up on stage, telling it just as hard as she ever has and letting that audience know she is not fooling around. Okay, so I don’t agree with every single point she says, but that is insignificant. Because what is real is her passion, her fire, her fury, and she has been doing this for 48 years. That’s longer than I’ve been alive. And she has sacrificed and suffered, and definitely not been liked. At the end of a very emotional 2 hours, she shares:

“Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputations… can never effect a reform.” – Susan B. Anthony

I am reminded that the important stuff is never easy. Because if it’s easy, it means you’re just going along, riding the current. It also suggests there isn’t anything needing to be changed. And if you’re okay with that, then keep on going along. But if you for a moment think that something looks, smells, feels, seems, just in the teeniest bit askew…

Then get ready to be disliked.

Damn statues

I’ve got that swirl in my brain again that says I need to sit and write. And not the kind of writing I do for journals and such, but the kind where the thoughts have to swish around, percolate, blurb up into something I don’t know yet.

Sleepless night, partly because my daughter got hit with a stomach bug (and our sink, floors, trash cans, bed linens got “hit” as well as a result), partly because I’ve been talking film with people and my head is ablaze. I meant to post a couple weeks ago after the MillionsMarchTX rally on January 17. But I sat on it, and as usual that was a mistake. Writers know what I’m talking about – if you sit on your words too long, they either disappear forever or they force their way into your life without mercy. This time the words are staging a revolt in my head, now fueled by new knowledge, insights, and potentials.

So I met a filmmaker, a bona-fide director who actually does this sort of thing for a living and makes a paycheck. He was gracious enough to watch the film and offer some honest feedback. And it was certainly honest. Bottom line: good concept, not so great delivery. I’ll spare the details, but this feedback was useful in that I could at least get some insight into why we continue to live in film festival rejection land. The few times I have been able to get feedback from festivals, the reviewers say they love the film, but it doesn’t make the cut. Now I might have some answers about why it doesn’t make the cut – there are technical problems, and these problems are not a surprise to me because, well, we really did have technical problems. So when trying to break into a space where the technicals matter, well, we’re being told to take our finger painting back home and come back when we learn how to use oils.

I don’t know if I’ll ever learn how to use oils, by the way. I also don’t know if I want to. The one thing I have learned about myself as a director is that I don’t want to know these things so I can do it all myself. I want to know enough so I can communicate, so I can translate, my ideas to a group of people who have to actualize those ideas. What I really want is to have a group of people who are really good at what they do, who are bound by a simple common purpose, who can be set loose to attack that vision in the ways they see fit. It’s funny, because I just realized this is also how I’ve come to teach students. I have no interest in telling students exactly what to say or do when they are learning how to counsel/interview people. I don’t want puppets. What I want is to motivate them to a point where they try things they didn’t think to try, where they step out of their comfort zone, where they begin to move creatively and let go of the need for rigid rules. I have to find the way to get them to see themselves one step beyond where they stand currently, recognize that when they take that step I’m still going to be there, and then let them figure out how to actually take that step.

That’s the part where I have to be the teacher for that student, because no two students are the same, and they don’t move the same ways or step in the same directions. But once they start stepping, it’s like being in a marathon. They just GO.

So we sorta stumbled into that in Parrhesia, and I’ve come to realize if I ever do this again that’s what I want, to give people lots of creative space to go crazy. But also set the parameter, make the frame, reel it in if someone decides to shoot off into space…And I think it’s that common goal that matters, that I would need to make sure that everyone gets what the purpose is. Since I’ll never be making a Godzilla (in spite of my kids’ desires), and I’ll probably only be able to engage in a film project that results from pure passion, it means getting people on board who resonate with that passion. That magically occurred with Parrhesia – so can we be intentional about that? I guess we’ll have to be.

As an aside – this film talk also had me seeing stars, the kind that accompanies things like awards and fame and all that bullshit. Damn if my little ego didn’t want to get seduced by that sort of thing again. So I had my moment of imagining red carpet recognition – and now I’m remembering that we never did this to get awards, we did this first to see if it could be done, and then finished it because we realized we could never live with it not being finished. So much faith in, well us really, meant we could not let everyone else down by not getting this thing done and shown. It wasn’t just that my work had to get out there, but the vulnerabilities and sacrifices of everyone in that film had to be shared. It demands an audience, even if it is a small audience; it is work that must be witnessed. In that sense I don’t care about ratings, I don’t care if it’s “marketable.” We created a portrait of the people in that film, a portrait that shows something between who they are and who they want to be – the “me and the not me”, as I’ve heard it described, and that has done something for all 8 of our cast. It has shown them the power and presence of their voice and they have seen that other people are affected by their lives. They are becoming the people they weren’t certain they could be prior to this. I never saw any of that coming but if I make a film again that is exactly what the goal will be, because I can’t really imagine making a film for any other reason. Isn’t that really what social justice is about? To voice that which has been ignored or silenced?

Aw heck, I’m a narrative therapist. Story isn’t a noun, it’s a verb. And that concept is definitely worth an award.

my kind of Oscar