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English degrees are job training…

Every degree I’ve ever pursued inspired people (family, friends, random guy in a bar,  etc.) to interrogate me with a line of questioning that went along the lines of , “What are you gonna do with that?” And of course this started with my undergraduate English major in college.

I love reading and talking about what I’m reading, so an English degree seemed like an all-brainer. I was also quite good at math and physical science, but those interests were not encouraged – and on a couple of impressive occasions, actively discouraged. I was freshly free of that hell-place (WHY did no one tell me about the GED?!), what others called “the best years of your life*,” and gorged myself on classes focused on my favorite things – reading and writing. 2.5 years later, I rounded out my general requirements at the community college then matriculated to university, where I declared my English major.

Immediately, it started: “What job are you gonna get with an English degree?” My joy in learning and participating in expansive, collaborative conversations was drenched in fear-mongering. Sure that I needed to justify my success, I would tell these interrogators that I was going to become an English professor. What I didn’t know (in the days before the Internet), and so couldn’t rejoin with, was that lots of famously and not so famously successful (by whatever means you want to measure it) people in many, many fields have English degrees: a Nobel laureate in medicine, CEOs, my friend Parker Palmer, tons of actors and musicians, journalists, politicians, and our beloved authors and teachers. Turns out, I can get just about any job I want with an English degree. Here’s an abbreviated list since graduating with my first liberal arts English degree:

  • retail salesperson
  • library clerk
  • website designer
  • pre-school teacher
  • computer science researcher
  • office administrator
  • information specialist
  • professor (not in the English department)
  • associate dean
  • agricultural worker
  • corporate Learning & Development manager
  • consultant

An now – thirty years after graduating with honors – the interrogators are now wanting to know how to back-fill for skills that I gained with my English degree: critical thinking, holding multiple opposing views, effective writing, searching for and listening to diverse experiences, and the ability to pivot when circumstances change. Turns out that rather than really expensive job training, my education best prepared me for a career that can embrace VUCA and the 21st Century. Five times more students graduated with business degrees than with English degrees in the final decade of the 20th Century; what did they do with their degrees? And now a MBA is almost looked down upon in many organizations.

I did not achieve my goal of becoming an English professor, and I’m grateful for that. I’m also grateful to my past me who held on to her joy and did what it took to keep the fear-mongering distractors at bay while she followed her deep calling. I chose to ignore manufactured fears and follow my fear that was telling me that this path was very important and I needed to attend it carefully.

Ultimately, my English degree has proven to be recession proof and epicly resilient.

(the autocorrect says I have misspellings, but I’m ignoring it because I’m the one with TWO English degrees and I say it’s fine)

*BTW – NEVER say that to an adolescent. Ever.

Reform or revolution…

**This post sat in my drafts folder for almost a year while some political entanglements loosened and I am now free to post.

I sat in a packed crowd in Seattle to listen to journalist and author Anand Giridharadas talk about his new book, Winners Take All: the elite charade of changing the world, and the toxic myth of “doing good by doing well.”

I didn’t know about this work or author until a colleague invited me to the event. She remembered that I had voiced a similar sentiment as a consternation related to working for a nonprofit with a mission to free people from poverty while depending on the largess of the mega-wealthy. Our organization’s new strategic plan includes a new initiative to address the systems that perpetuate poverty, rather than continue to simply apply balm to the wounds it inflicts. How this shows up in our work has, so far, taken the form of gathering interested employees to attend Advocacy Day at our state capital and adding a new fundraising position focused on monthly donors in a Bernie-esque effort to involve a more general population.

As I watched the room in a former church fill up, I commented to my friend that all but two people of color were literally on the margins. Front and center were older white people, like us, who got there early or had seating reserved for members of the hosting organization. When the host and Anand sat down for a public conversation, the room was quiet, polite, and responsive. Anand commented a few times that we were a sympathetic or easy crowd. He also said that, as a New Yorker, what he saw in Seattle was really bad – worse than what he saw in New York City – even disgusting in the hometown of the world’s richest company and man.

Anand, of course, isn’t just any visitor to Seattle. He’s an award-winning journalist and insider of many of the organizations he interrogates in his book (which is available on Amazon and sports a diplomatic blurb from Bill Gates). He knew about Bezos bullying our city council into repealing a unanimously agreed-upon tax that would have funded city efforts to address some of the damage Amazon has done. And he knew about the just-announced “gift” from the Bezos family to initiate another ill-informed attempt to address public education shortcomings. He also knows that many of the co-conspirators in our current wildly inequitable society, writ-large in Seattle, are good people who have created what most of us don’t want (see Abilene Paradox). They (we?) have swallowed the capitalist, Neo-liberal propaganda that says government can’t help with social problems, only business and capital can save us. They/we have tried to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. The gravity-defying waves of wealth have washed over the unspoken taboo that continues shore-up the status quo.

The taboo that his book and other voices are bringing to the light of awareness, if not inquiry, is this: the wealthy have profited from the current system and they will not do – or tolerate – anything that disturbs that system. While the rich agree with and promote giving more, they will never agree to taking less.

I’m still afraid to post this; my ability to get my needs met is dependent upon monetary income that comes via organizations that may find this too uncomfortable to tolerate. Even though I no longer work for that organization, I’m still working for other organizations implicated by this premise.  The work nonprofits do in social service is needed and fundamental to human health and well-being; and, just like other unpaid or underpaid necessary work (farming, childcare, emotional labor, etc.), the ability to continue to do it is dependent upon individual and corporate donations. As Anand so eloquently laid out in his book, this system of dependency is basically a form of selling indulgences to the rich. Donating to nonprofits functions as:

  • guilt payments
  • public relations
  • misdirection
  • a locked circle of the poor supporting the poorer

As long as the rich keep taking far far far far far far more than they need, we will not realize (make real) what we hope to leave as our legacy for children, like Greta Thunberg or Emma Gonzalez or Kelvin Doe : a verdant world that runs on sharing, not hoarding, and curiosity, not combat.

For all of us that can imagine a better world and want to behave as if it is already here, we are still deep within systems that force us to act in our temporary best interests at the cost to long-term change. And since posting this is still scaring me, it must be important. I choose to engage and connect with what may be on the other side.

 

We are living in a time of Wendigo…

True to my preferences, my musings on fear thus far have been rather academic and practical. I like being an academic that gets things done; this realm holds activities I enjoy and is bounded in a way that I feel capable…and safe. In that way, I have been working toward this post – in this space safe enough for fear.

Wendigo spirit is terrifying…and it’s here. I just read yet another story of a community coming apart because of perceived threat from (a) poor people, or (b) brown immigrants. Of course the social and mass media do not identify them as such; they call their perceived enemies drug addicts, job-stealers, illegal, homeless, dangerous, nuisance, alcoholics, lazy, and – ultimately – not like us. And I’ve heard other stories that set the mega-rich as the enemy (and I have perpetuated these stories) calling this perceived enemy greedy, inhuman, heartless, dangerous, cruel, stupid, and – ultimately – not like us. These stories break my heart because I can see the suffering that the storytellers (including me) are breathing everyday…and I want to do something about it. We are all connected and we are all suffering – particularly those who actively drive division. We are lonely, afraid, and sure that other humans are the problem.

It’s all a lie.

I recently had a conversation with Jonathan Tomhave and Jeanette Bushnell of NDNPlayers. They are also academics and the occasion of our meeting was a project with Ion Collaborators here in Seattle around creative approaches to community pains and, specifically, belonging. Jonathan and Jeanette, along with their colleague Tyler Prather, created a game to teach the Coast Salish economic system called “potlatch” to children. The game is simple, yet when adults play, it becomes very difficult for those who are devoted to competition and our usual economics of “-isms.” In our conversation, Jonathan noted that this game, and the hope behind it, are in response to “living in a time of Wendigo.” His words reverberated through my DNA composed of colonizers and community matriarchs.

Humans have not always lived in times of Wendigo; we would have died out millennia ago. Wendigo is an invasive species that ebbs and swells with attention and neglect. When we neglect the vibrant connections with our environment and each other that make life worth bothering with, Wendigo flourishes. When we attend connection and compassion with those that are immediately present, Wendigo withers.

Back in the 1990’s, when the Internet and social media were still mostly the realm of maligned nerds, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” produced an episode of a demon uploading to Internet. The behavior of the people coming under its influence predicted trolls, incels, Internet bullying, and insatiable greed. “Moloch” was a dramatized version of Wendigo; a warning from the center of the “Jossverse” that would later implode when that creator’s Wendigo behavior was finally exposed.

Wendigo emerges when humans resort to cannibalism to survive – and that is what we are are doing through divisive, isolating behavior that turns people into objects to be consumed. In a scarcity mindset, there is not enough to go around – and this is the lie of Wendigo. There is more than enough of everything for everyone on this planet; our suffering is the result of objectification, hoarding, and isolation. The noise of “those people are out to get us” and “I need more” is drowning out our alert system to what we need to actually be afraid of – treating people as the problem and not the solution. Our greatest fear of an actual encounter with “other” is alerting us that that is exactly what we need to do. The stories of people engaging with people who are not like themselves to learn and help are what heals my heart and keeps me fed.

And we academics are guilty of overthinking every single indicator so that our fear-ally is silenced. We have the platforms and resources to collect and share evidence that human beings – particularly healthy relationships between all sorts of human beings – is what we need to survive and thrive. Jonathan and Jeanette have used their knowledge and passion to offer help through play, and have honored our fear of “politics” or abandonment by moving right into those realms to starve Wendigo, not each other. We need all of us, not just the ones that are comfortable or familiar. We know better; now we must do better.

We are better together and – by the way – belonging is a verb.

 

Fear is optional… (pt4 – the options)

Pay Attention! This Is Important!

What We Can Do

Learn to recognize fear and what it has to tell us. The best place to start is by finding ways to dampen fears that come from things out of our control, such as other people’s thoughts, feelings, or actions. Unless we’re dealing with a small child whom we could physically control, feeling afraid of what someone else is thinking, feeling or might do is background noise that interferes with our ability to actually “hear” what needs our attention.

Within the din of a multitude of fears, our amygdala goes into over drive and increases the volume of our fears. Over time, this volume damages the organs in our bodies that are responding to our fears, like our hearts, spleens, and joints. Just like hearing loss caused by too much noise, we can lose our ability to “hear” and respond to fear, to our detriment. By dampening fears that are manufactured – by ourselves or others – we will open up space for fear to do its job of drawing our attention to what truly matters for us. Listening to fear will make it possible to hear a wind chime rather than only klaxons.

Watch our language. Our words shape and define our reality. Conditioning ourselves with phrases like “be fearless,” “no fear,” “overcome your fear,” “I’m too scared,” or “fear is a destructive emotion” will create realities in which fear is a monster, rather than a helpmate to our survival. By changing our words, we can begin to honor fear as an aspect of a healthy, thriving life: “This new project really scares me! What’s causing that? What’s important for me here?”

By asking real questions of our fear, we can learn how to navigate daily events, long-term relationships, and incidental surprises. Our culture is filled with stories of heroes encountering monsters that turned out to be, after a few good questions were asked, beings of great power and help. Calling fear a “power tool” rather than a “monster” makes it no less powerful and far more approachable. And, remember to always say “thank you” for what fear has taught you. An attitude of gratitude in regarding fear goes a long way toward turning down the volume.

Ask fear “why?” five times. This is more than getting in touch with our inner two year-old. When we can take time to evaluate our fear alert – which is more often than not – we need to ask “Why is this scaring me?” five times to really get to the heart of the matter, because each answer will likely dissolve into another layer of truth. (As a brief aside, courage is actually a mixture of heart/love and fear.) This is a good practice as we start to work with, rather than against, fear. As we become more practiced with listening to our fear, we won’t need to do this as often.

Use fear to focus our efforts and activities. Once we have dampened the background noise of anxiety (“free-radicals” in the fear realm) and engaged with what is actually scaring us in the moment, we can use feeling afraid to guide our attention and actions toward what really matters. Heart racing when approaching the airport gate? Feeling a bit nauseous on your way to the job interview? We can listen to our actual, possibly pre-cognitive fear (i.e., there’s something wrong on the plane; this isn’t the right job) and access our six fear responses to act appropriately and in our best interests.

Fear is our gift if we treat it as an aspect of a healthy life. It can alert us to new discoveries, let us know what risks to take and what risks to avoid, stir the pot of creative soup, and it can lead us to releasing what is no longer working for us so space is opened up to new integration and growth. We need to appreciate that we can care through fear, that we can make connections with fear present, that we can hold fear without having to do anything about it, and that fear can fuel us to battle that which truly threatens us.

We have options, far more than we’ve been led to believe, when we’re scared. We can successfully move with and through our fears by embracing them with awareness, gratitude and compassion.  We can condition ourselves – our brains! – to learn and grow from fear without having to fix ourselves or anyone else.

We are not broken! Our fears are not bad!

They are there for a reason.  And if we let them, they can actually serve us and our planetary home.

Fear is optional… (pt3)

First, fear is an alert.

To use fear with awareness is to determine how feeling scared can be healthy, a gift, the door to creative solutions, and the ultimate alert system to draw your attention to what is truly important for you right now. In a fog of emotionally-hijacked, constant fear – anxiety – we have no chance of identifying what is actually in need of our focused attention or what action to take. The consequences for this kind of fog are global and devastating.

For instance:

The climate of our planet is changing radically. While the cause(s) are in debate, the consequences are not. The increasing rate and intensity of storms, drought, flooding, wild fires, dust storms, melting glaciers, and loss of land – including entire islands – have all registered alarm around the world. With the alert system activated, i.e., with millions of people fearing for their lives, we are being called to pay attention to what is supremely important and to take immediate action.

Yet, there are millions of people who deny not only the presence but the impending devastation of climate change at this rate. This denial is a consequence of emotional hijacking gone global. Individuals deal with emotional hijacking by running for cover and denying (flight) what is happening and living in avoidance, or are left feeling completely immobilized (freeze) – unable to move in any direction, while others indulge in alcohol, drugs, or food to numb the fear (flight).  These attempts to find relief only result in building false armors of protection and do nothing to change or alleviate the source of the fear. When millions of people participate in these freeze and flight responses to climate change, the consequences for all of us include the loss of millions of lives and the potential for ecological collapse.

We can no longer hear the alert for all the noise.

Because the ability of millions of people to discern real fear and pinpoint its source has been short-circuited due to overload, our entire society and our very lives are in jeopardy. While we are being distracted by pleasing the scary boss, by donning various “costumes” to feel attractive and accepted, and by stuffing and starving our physical bodies to numb our constant anxiety – the intricate systems that support human life on this planet are breaking down without abatement.

 

Fear is optional… (pt2)

To be afraid of something is proof positive that it hasn’t happened.

– Gavin de Becker in The Gift of Fear

You’re freaking out. The boss wants to talk with you – out of the blue! Shit. It’s 8am and the meeting is at 3pm. You think, “I’m in trouble,” or even “I’m getting fired.” Your heart is racing, you can’t sit still, and you can’t think. It’s now 10am and your mouth has gone dry and nausea feels likes it’s about to get active. You’re afraid and nothing has happened or changed in your immediate environment.

This situation is the most prevalent form of “emotional hijacking” in our culture. Emotional hijacking occurs when our natural emotional response to a situation is artificially stimulated for an unnatural length of time, and usually for unnatural reasons.

Here is how it can play out:

Being in sudden proximity to a tiger can trigger fear.* You need focus (adrenaline), speed (dopamine), strength (testosterone), and painkillers (endorphin) to get yourself to safety. In a matter of seconds your fate will be decided – safely resting or death-by-tiger. You only need your fear reaction to operate for those seconds and, if you survive, your amygdala will have gained a conditioned response to tigers.

Suddenly being called to the boss’s office can trigger fear. You need focus (adrenaline), group glue (oxytocin), and happy juice (serotonin) to get the support and resilience you need to agilely address what your boss has to say. An indeterminate neutral zone lies between now and your eventual sense of rest and safety, depending on what you hear from your boss. You need your fear reaction to align with a group, endurance to thrive, and consciously condition your amygdala response to boss-encounters.

When you apply your “tiger” fear reaction to your boss situation, you become a victim of emotional hijacking. You treat a potential change in your current employment situation as an immediate, life-or-death threat to your existence. Metaphors aside, seeing your boss as a tiger is extremely hazardous; you pump yourself full of biochemicals and ideas that are not only inappropriate but actually counterproductive to the situation at hand.

Fear is critical to our survival. The faster and earlier we can recognize the tiger hiding in the bushes, the more likely we are to avoid “death by tiger”! The problem is that very few people have been killed by their boss. However, because it can feel pretty devastating, the fear response gets stimulated and we may start anticipating “death-by-getting-yelled-at” behind every bush.

In addition to emotional hijacking, we have also been conditioned to believe that we only have two options in the face of any fear: fight or flight. However, further studies (that included people besides young, white males) have found that we have at least four more reactions that are engaged “naturally” by humans.

Our more full range of reactions to fear include:

  • Fight: overcome the source of the fear
  • Flight: flee the source of the fear
  • Freeze: stop to assess the source of the fear or allow it to pass by
  • Fake: change appearance or sound to cause the source of the fear to stop and assess
  • Care: address the perceived needs of the source of the fear
  • Connect: establish a relationship with the source of the fear

The first two responses share the basic action of separating us from whatever is scaring us. The second pair both function to buy some time, if possible. The third pair both keep us engaged with what is scaring us. These additional four responses all share the potential for transforming our experience of fear and even transforming the source of our fear. The initial two, because they separate us from the source and experience of the fear, function to reinforce that the source of fear always scary and, therefore, bad.

The emotion of fear is as rich as the emotion of love and the full experience of fear includes a similar richly full range of responses. We know that when someone says “I love my car” and “I love my child” that they are not talking about the same kind of love. Somehow we don’t have that same appreciation when someone says “I fear falling from this ledge” and “I fear speaking in public.”

*I say “can trigger fear” because there are situations where the tiger or boss are known quantities and safety is not an issue.

 

Fear is optional…

Fear is part of our being humans. We can no more be “fearless” than we can be “liverless.” It has been with fear that we have survived to evolve into terraformers, artists, and digital tool wielders. Our capacity for fear has also evolved; however, our culture has created a toxic environment that interferes with how we use this powerful tool. At its foundation, fear is an alert system; a sensation of fear says, “Pay attention! This is really important!” in an instant. Fear is present in risk, in love, and in grief. It spans all our lived experience and is BASIC to our survival, as well as an indicator for our thrival.

Contrary to what we have been taught, we have many options when we feel fear. While feeling fear is not optional in our day to day lives, how we respond to it is. On a day to day basis, we feel fear far more often about psychological issues and situations than actual physical threats to our survival.

This Is Your Brain on Fear

The amygdala is a tiny powerhouse in our brain which processes and conditions our responses to fear, addictions, sex drive, search for comfort, anger and many primitive responses that in primitive times kept us safe from harm.   It is the part of the brain that has the power to inhibit the rest of the body’s systems so that you can accomplish the task at hand.  It is our “lizard brain” and rather important for anything that might require energy and focus.

The amygdala regulates the biochemical soup that is released during a fear reaction. Based on prior conditioning, this soup can contain any combination and amount of any of the following:

  • dopamine: rocket fuel triggered by “challenge”
  • adrenaline: mainlined espresso triggered by defensiveness
  • noradrenaline: organic steroids triggered by aggressiveness
  • testosterone: the Hulk triggered by competition and domination
  • cortisol: support staff for adrenaline and noradrenaline triggered by anxiety, frustration, guilt
  • DHEA: happy-energy juice triggered by love
  • serotonin: happy-relax juice triggered by appreciation
  • endorphin: painkiller triggered by intensity
  • oxytocin: group glue triggered by group efforts

However, the biochemical effects of an emotion last only 90 seconds. After that it is your conscious or conditioned choice to hold on to that emotion. While feeling fear is instinctive and necessary, our response is conditioned and shaped by choices over time. Whether our conditioning was conscious or not, was our choice or not, we have the power to change our conditioning with conscious intent.

A fear response that continues to fire without adequate rest affects all systems of the body, resulting in real physiologic changes and dis-ease. Our culture feeds on dis-ease and so is supported by a general fear-state in all of us. Parents, teachers, media, neighbors, and friends all try to “help” us by pointing out that we would be less lonely if we were to dress a particular way and frequent certain gathering places; that we would find a dedicated mate if we lost weight or cleared up our skin; that we would be more financially secure if we just tried harder to please the boss, meet the deadline, and not make waves. This constant and consistent fear-state robs us of the power of fear to discern what is truly important to us, while wreaking real damage to our physical bodies.