The Lesson of the Narcissistic Leader

Last night I had a dream that weird things kept happening, and weird strangers kept showing up at my door saying things I didn’t understand. Then it turned out I was having a complete mental break, and the “strangers” were friends and family trying to help me come back to reality. 

I’m sure this has nothing to do with our current situation.

I’ve started and stopped so many posts in the last couple of months, but honestly I kept getting overwhelmed. There’s so much happening so quickly, and it’s hard to talk about workplace culture when your entire country is on the brink.

We’re not nearly out of the woods yet, but we have a moment to breath now. And breathing, to me, means processing. It’s challenging to deal with how many voters have a blind allegiance to a megalomaniacal con man, and I’ve been struggling with understanding it. 

Me over the past couple of months.

Like many in quarantine, I’ve been watching a lot on streaming. A couple years ago I caught a couple episodes of Scientology: The Aftermath online, and now that the entire series has come onto Netflix, I’ve been catching up with the rest. There was a lot I already knew about the problems of the “religion”, but what I found particularly interesting watching it at this point in time was the vast number of parallels I started to see to Trump conservatives. And in fact, all of the things we can learn about by looking at both. 

There are a lot of uncanny similarities between Trump and L. Ron Hubbard. Which should not really be surprising, since both men are/were malignant narcissists. And although I don’t think I can ever completely understand why people found either man compelling, I do find it interesting to think about their leadership styles, and why those styles, though effective in the short term, are ultimately destined to lead to disaster. 

And though it is difficult sometimes to look at their impact and the damage they have done, we can learn a lot about what a truly good leader looks like by examining the bad.

Whether thinking about the kind of leader you want to be, or the kind of leader you want to follow, here are some things to consider.

Abusing a Need for Identity vs Supporting a Need for Identity

One thing that seems very consistent for a number of people who initially joined Scientology was a desire for something more in life. People felt disconnected from the world. They may have felt neglected or ignored in daily life. They wanted a life with meaning. They wanted to be important and a part of something bigger.

Similarly, a large number of Trump supporters are clearly feeling disaffected with the movement of society. Many belong to rural communities that are struggling with lack of industry and resources. Many are scared by the changing demographics of our country, and the possibility of a world that doesn’t revolve around white men. They want simplicity and clarity in a world that is complex and complicated. With many valid issues of concern, they are looking for answers, and have glommed onto the idea that all of their problems are caused by socialist liberals and identity politics. 

Both groups use their membership in these communities to feel superior in their identity. Only they know the truth, only they see the conspiracies around us. 

The use of identity to obtain followers is a powerful strategy. We all have a need for belonging, and it is easy to feel like the odd person out in so many ways. But identifying with the wrong group can have severe costs.

A good leader encourages group identity, but not the use of superiority. Everyone should feel like they matter and have something of value to add, but not at the cost of others.

Identity in a Cage vs Identity without Barriers

So yes, these groups give people a strong sense of identity. But there is a catch-22 here. Because your identity is extremely restricted within these groups. Once you divert from the norm, you quickly become an outsider.

There is a reason that both communities are extremely white, misogynistic, and homophobic. Both groups are steeped in white supremacy and patriarchy. Victims are blamed for their own assaults. LGBTQ individuals are exiled and reviled. Children are forced to conceal their true selves just in order to survive. People may claim that they are accepting, but fall out of line, and you will quickly find yourself alone. 

Their love is not unconditional.

A good leader values group identity, but also individual identity. They know that diversity provides strength. Differences of race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability are not to be feared, but engaged with and understood.

Controlling Information vs Transparency

This is a big one. Because no authoritarian leader can rise without the use of propaganda. And if you look at both groups, again there are some startling similarities in the use of information. 

Both groups consider mainstream media biased and evil. There is a secret agenda, and only they are smart enough to see it. Why would they read any other perspectives? Their path is superior and there is no need to see any other way.

This is, of course, a strategic thing. Hubbard was rightfully being called out by the press for starting a cult, so simply demanded that his followers didn’t consume any news about their practice. Similarly, though Trump didn’t start the practice of disparaging the “liberal media”, he was only able to promote his idea of “fake news” thanks to the long time practice of the GOP in pushing their followers to only consume far right media. 

A good leader never prevents their people from consuming different perspectives. If your way is truly the best, you know there will be data to support it. You know it will stand up to scrutiny and questions. You are transparent with your people, because you have nothing to hide.

"So there are 5,213 publications lying about you, and only 3 telling the truth? Makes sense to me!"

Managing Through Fear vs Managing Through Hope

Once an authoritarian has control over the media for their followers, there’s another common thread. The use of fear. 

Many ex-Scientologists, especially those raised in the church, speak of how they were taught that the world is a horrible and cruel place, and all non-Scientologists are terrible people. It was only Scientology that would save the world. 

And yet, once they left, they realized that the people who opened their arms, who provided safety and understanding and compassion, were not the people they were taught to see as superior. 

Similarly, Trump followers think that us on the liberal left have a socialist (and often gay) agenda. Interestingly, many of those who cry about socialism don’t actually seem to understand what it is, and often end up criticizing policies that are based more in capitalism, or the actions of private companies. But it’s not actually about the foundations of different political theory. It’s about a boogeyman, where  right wingers can pull it out of the closet and scream “BOO!” and their followers will react accordingly.

A good leader inspires. They acknowledge the challenges and validate the pain of their people. But they also encourage hope that things can be better for all of us.

Compassion as Weakness vs Compassion as Core Value

Superiority is a very dangerous thing. A vast number of the worst things to happen in humanity have a core of superiority at the center. Once you believe yourself superior, and see others as inferior, their humanity starts to slip away in your eyes. And once that humanity is gone, it is easy to see them as expendable.

Scientologists who fall out of line or question their organization are treated incredibly inhumanly. Children have been sent to work camps, women have been forced to hug their rapists, and people have been openly abused for daring to question their leader. There is no compassion for those who are struggling with mental illness, as Hubbard, unable to accept his own diagnosis of mental illness, proclaimed war on the entire practice of psychology.

As for Trump followers, the “snowflakes” on the left are far too sensitive, a bunch of babies who overreact to everything. The MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, and other social justice efforts are simply women and people of color crying about things that are our own fault. Systemic issues are just a myth and we all just need to yank harder on our bootstraps.

But the saddest thing is that they genuinely don’t understand why someone might put others first or care about what happens to them. The number of people unwilling to wear a mask or socially isolate shows the result of this in grim detail.

A good leader models empathy and compassion. They understand that there are things that are important for the community as a whole, and it is not just about us as individuals.

"You're broke and can't donate any more money? Shame."

Attacking Critics vs Engaging with Critics

This one would be funny if it weren’t so sad. The inability of the malignant narcissist to handle any criticism is so foreign to someone like me, who self criticizes constantly. And yet, like allowing outside information, allowing criticism could provide a crack through which people could slip free. 

Hubbard instituted a policy practice of “fair game”, still used to this day, in which critics of Scientology are harassed and disparaged in an attempt to discredit them. Private detectives are hired to conspicuously follow people, and even do such things as stealing trash from victims to find something that can be used against them. They’ve harassed journalists, lawyers, even IRS agents. There are records of them attempting to frame critical individuals for crimes and to have them ruined financially.

And with Trump? Watch any speech he’s ever given. His followers go where his example leads. There is no such thing as valid criticism. He’s only ever been perfect, and done perfect things. All of the problems are caused by the other side, and if the other side just went away, the world would be perfect.

A good leader understands that it is impossible to be perfect. Mistakes will happen. Failures will happen. Yet we always have room to grow and learn. Engaging productively with criticism is an important part of that. 

Placing Blame vs Seeking Accountability

Closely connected with the above, another lovely little characteristic of the narcissist is the inability to accept blame. Hubbard literally placed himself as an infallible deity-like figure, who would issue policies and expect complete obedience. And for any person under him who suffered? It was their own fault. People who were victimized were being “paid back” for something they must have done in a previous life. 

In Trump’s case, there are countless articles written about this phenomenon. He will cycle through various others to blame, but absolutely never take responsibility for anything himself. In the most humorous moments, he blames Hilary Clinton, despite her never actually holding the office. In the most tragic, he blames others for the over 200,000 deaths from Covid, when he holds the greatest responsibility for his lack of action. 

A good leader holds themselves accountable. They are able to say “I was wrong, and I am sorry.” And however difficult, they work to make things right.

Profit Above All vs Profit After People

The title really says it all here. Hubbard started his cult for money. Trump is vastly in debt, and using his claims of election fraud to con his followers into donating money to fund his survival. Abusing others and the obtainment of wealth are deeply connected in our world.

A good leader thinks of their people first. Prioritizing your people often can result in greater productivity and profit, but that’s not the main reason for doing it. They care about their people because people are worth caring about.

"I'm starting to think this guy doesn't have my best interest at heart."

One final thing. 

Although the techniques used by both groups are insidious and strategic, there is still an element of willful ignorance and personal responsibility that we can’t ignore. There is so much information out there that is easily accessible. But it is difficult to break out of an unhealthy mindset, especially when you’ve never been taught to question, especially when everyone around you is pushing you to stay the course. 

Yet when I see the ex-Scientologists who have broken free, taken responsibility for how they have hurt others, and working to bring the current institution down, it is a valuable reminder that there is no time limit on having an awakening. Some of these people were born into the cult, and it was all they knew. Yet there was a moment, sometimes tragic, that helped them see the truth. And now it seems possible that Scientology will face a reckoning. 

I don’t know if I believe this will happen for many Trump voters. Just like how many flat-earthers have moved their conspiracy beliefs to QAnon, people who want the world to be simple and under complete control are unlikely to become advocates for social justice. 

But…for those that do. For those that will learn, will change, will take responsibility, will work to be better. We’ll be here when it happens.

Sunday Reflection – The Massive Failure of “The Customer is Always Right”

Like many people, I started working as soon as I was old enough to do so legally. Mostly summer jobs, mostly retail. Some were better than others, but overall I learned a lot and enjoyed the benefits of having a paycheck for the first time. But the job that really sticks with me, for all the wrong reasons, was from the summer I worked at the front desk for a hotel on the coast of Maine.

It was my very first experience with customers who felt utterly entitled to do anything they wanted. Sometimes this included yelling at a teenage girl for telling them their room wasn’t ready yet – even though they were trying to check in hours before the time rooms were guaranteed to be available. I had numerous customers, generally older white men, who had zero qualms over making me feel awful. I even remember one man’s look of satisfaction as I turned away, fighting back tears, to call our housekeeping staff and try to get his room ready. He thought he’d won. And he had.

Because it wasn’t just that these men would come in and scream at me. It was that our manager would always, always, always, take their side. We were expected to suck it up and take it, no matter what. She would never take my side, never even ask me if I was ok, or if I needed help. All she cared about was making sure that customer was happy. Nothing else mattered to her.

I’ve had a great deal of job experience since then, but that still stands out as the worst.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, because of some really disturbing things I’m seeing online, with so many essential employees being treated like rubbish. Customers are screaming at them, hitting them, spitting at them, or even just refusing to do the most basic actions to keep them safe.

I was at Target the other day, and chatting with my cashier. I asked her if people were behaving themselves. Her answer? “Well, my line has been pretty good.”

That made me so sad. Is that really the most essential workers can hope for? That the horrible things will only happen close to them, not at them?

There’s a lot of reasons why I think customers are being so horrible right now, including toxic individualism and a total lack of empathy. But I also think that the “customer is always right” attitude that has been cultivated for years, is coming to a critical point right now. It may have been originally intended as a proactive and positive thing, to encourage going above and beyond to make customers happy. But like many good ideas, it’s become corrupted into an excuse for lack of courage or leadership.

Sure, there are those occasional managers who support their staff and kick out a rude or abusive customers. But there are still far too many, often with pressure from corporate, who expect the employees to just take it. Smooth it over. Give the customer something free. Give them an apology when they are the one who is wrong.

This isn’t good business. It’s not good management. It has vast repercussions for employees, and for those customers who are respectful and want to complete their purchase without witnessing a meltdown.

Sure, having an unhappy customer is something to care about. But when that unhappiness crosses the line to abuse, there is zero benefit to supporting that behavior. 

That hotel that I worked at? Was in an incredibly popular location where hotels would be booked months in advance. If my manager had decided not to serve someone, to refund their money and send them on their way, they would have had nowhere to go. The only power they had in that situation was the power the manager handed over to them. Because they were “always right”.

I don’t know what my future career holds, but I do know this. I will always hold respect and compassion important. If I ever have employees again, they will come first. And I will never, ever, believe that the customer is always right.

Can we just bin them all?

Balancing on the Brink

“There are none happiest in this world but those who enjoy freely a vast horizon.” The Deer, Far From Noise

There’s so many things I’ve been wanting to write about, and yet I keep getting stuck. So many things that feel important somehow start to seem insignificant when hearing the latest news. Workplace culture, leadership in crisis, the mental health of workers, are all concepts that matter as a part of the puzzle, but the pieces are all so scattered right now, and I don’t know if I have the energy to pick them up.

I thought about writing on all the ways our national leadership has utterly failed us, but so many are already pointing these things out, and our Failure-in-Chief still has his blind worshippers. I thought about talking about empathy and how necessary it is for human connection, yet when we’re surrounded by those who are only capable of self-interest, it just feels fatiguing to keep pushing a narrative of the power of humanity’s caring. I wanted to write something inspiring about being the bigger person, refusing to give in to apathy, and fighting for a better world, and I still hope to at some point. But I honestly don’t feel up to it today.

Today, instead, I am going to talk about a video game.

Seems like generally good advice.

Most people who do not game, and even some that do, are unaware of just how vast and creative the arena of independent game design is. Most people hear about the big companies and the big titles, the sales that go into the millions, the topics of discussion or controversy you hear about for months.

However there is an entire world out there of small game design, and I would argue, some of these games are just as artistic as what you find in a museum. It’s a different form of art than we typically see, and for those who haven’t experienced it, it’s easy to dismiss. Yet indie games have the capacity to provide a unique opportunity for the player to interact deeply with the kinds of ideas that many big games are afraid to touch. In indie games you can find deeply thoughtful LGBTQ+ content, reflections on gender and race, meditations on life and death. There are no stockholders to please, no fans to cry about supposed “SJW agendas”, no competition to capture an online audience. Just an individual, or a small team, and an idea.

Which brings me to Far From Noise

Fine...sure, we're all fine.

As you may have gleaned from the previous two photos, Far From Noise has a pretty simple premise.

You play as a young woman who was driving a car to the coast, looking for a bit of escape and peace of mind. And one tiny little snafu later, your car is balanced gently on the edge of a cliff.

Your car’s engine is overheated and won’t start. And you can’t open the door without tipping the car forward. In other words, you are perfectly balanced. Between safety and danger, between your past and future, between life and death. With nothing but your own thoughts to keep you company.

Until The Deer comes. And he begins to speak to you.

Funny how often I've thought this in real life lately.

Part of the beauty of any kind of fictional media is the chance to embrace that which would be unimaginable in real life. In reality, if a deer wandered up to you and started speaking philosophically, you would likely be having some sort of mental break.

In truth, this could be the case in the game as well. Your character is experiencing something intensely stressful, and it is absolutely possible that everything happening is just in your mind. But the wonderful thing is, it doesn’t matter. It’s a game. So you go with it.

The Deer has a very… well, deer-like perspective. He is not human, and has no interest in being. He likes solitude, and calmly embraces the natural world around him. At times he can seem almost callous in how little he worries about your circumstances.

Great, I get the deer with a sense of humor.

Our character’s natural inclination in this situation – an inclination I think most of us would share in a similar scenario – is to panic, despair, and feel hopeless.

After all, hopelessness is a direct result of feeling powerless. There is so much that happens in this world that we cannot control. And many of those things that we cannot control have a direct impact on us.

Such as the powerlessness of being stuck in a moment where you can see the precipice, see the giant drop on the other side. And it feels like it might be inevitable.
Well, if I'm gonna die, at least it will be scenic on the way down.

The Deer, on the other hand, is very pragmatic about your circumstances. He recognizes your peril, yet remains calm throughout. He doesn’t sugarcoat your situation in the least. But, importantly, he also doesn’t believe that you should despair.

The Deer sees himself not as an individual entity, but rather as part of the whole. He sees this in you as well. He doesn’t see the sum of your life as this one individual moment. Rather, he sees the entirety of you. And it’s something special.

Sage deer.

While you play, it’s interesting to get caught up in the conversation. You and The Deer speak about hope and meaning, fear and despair. As night falls, you name constellations. You interact with other small critters on their nightly tasks. You watch a storm toss lightening into the sea. It’s all beautiful.

It’s also window dressing for something else. Something really important.

Where else can you have a deer recite you poetry during a storm?

The truth is, The Deer has no idea what will happen for you. He cannot intervene. He cannot save you.

The precipice is still there. The precipice will always be there.

Yet, what he can do, what he does, is stay with you. He talks with you through the long night, through the wind and the rain. He speaks poetry. He pushes your buttons and makes you think.

He lets you know you are not alone. You are both dandelions in the field. You are both part of the sea.

You are connected.

And when the morning comes, and the sun rises, you are changed.

Thanks for being here, buddy.

Ok, I lied. This isn’t just about a video game. What can I say? I love a good metaphor.

And playing this game felt so current, so relevant to everything I’ve been feeling lately. As we approach November, there’s a great many of us who feel like we are balancing on the brink. There’s so much damage already done, and we know that there are no guarantees for the future. It’s terrifying, and easy to slip into despair.

To be honest, I can’t always get behind hope. Sometimes it’s just too difficult.

But what I can get behind is connection. I may have complicated feelings about humanity as a whole, but it’s simple when I think of the people I am connected to in my life. When I think about those I love and who love me.

With that connection, I can get behind meaning. It may be a meaning I find in spite of what’s around me. It may be a meaning I need to create for myself, but that doesn’t make it insignificant.

Why not, indeed.

So how does it end? Do we go forward or backward?

I guess we’ll see.

Toxic Workplaces and the Role of the Complicit Consumer

Another day, another AAA gaming company revealing a viciously toxic workplace culture. At this point, I would be more surprised if a big game company was revealed to be healthy. 

As a gamer, the last few years of continuous allegations regarding the industry has made me extremely wary of supporting big gaming companies. When I was younger, it was so much easier to be dazzled by the glossy polish of the gaming experience. Amazing graphics, cool storylines, and inventive gameplay made it incredibly enticing to focus on the product over the process. Yet the repeating stories of toxic culture, workplace crunch, and phobia around stories that don’t center straight white cis men are increasingly difficult to overlook. And to be true to myself, and the causes I believe in, I can’t overlook them. Not if I want to maintain any sense of my own integrity.

Yet what truly breaks my heart, as I learn more about systems of oppression and toxic environments, is realizing that these issues have always been present. The marginalized have always been victimized in these corporations. In all industries. In all places. It’s been happening forever. And without the courage of the people speaking up, it would all still stay under the rug. And even with those speaking out, chances of change are slim – if we are to rely on these industries to improve themselves.

"Ugh, these stupid women keep going public. What do we do?"

In a similar vein, NPR recently reported a story on the world’s biggest meatpacking company, JBS, a Brazilian corporation. This company gives a whole new meaning to the word “corruption” from their complicity in the deforestation of the Amazon, to bribery of top officials, to their horrific treatment of workers leading directly to Covid-19 outbreaks in multiple countries. You probably haven’t heard of them. But if you’ve ever eaten meat, you’ve bought from them. We all have. Their brand logo will never appear on what you buy, but they get your money all the same.

I’ve been thinking a lot about both of these news stories this week. I believe deeply that it is possible to create a healthy and balanced workplace culture, yet when the roots of an industry are so deeply toxic, how do you even begin to foster change? Especially when those that have power are guaranteed to do the absolute minimum in “improvements” so they can maintain the status quo?

"I have an idea...ooh, what's that over there!?"
"Bob has resigned, and since everything was clearly his fault, we have no more problems here!"

As aptly noted in this piece by Kellen Browning for the New York Times (a publication that has been having their own issues with accountability at the top levels), the current accusations leveled at gaming giant Ubisoft are simply part of a new cycle of reports. Every year, and often every few months, we see this cycle repeat. Not just in gaming, but in many different industries.

And Ubisoft’s reaction has been utterly predictable. The statement released by their PR firm was a recycled and cliched response that we have seen a million times before. 

“We strive to create and foster a culture that Ubisoft’s employees and partners can be proud of” – ✅ 

“We do not and will not tolerate abuse, harassment or discrimination of any kind.” – ✅ 

“The recent claims and allegations are deeply troubling, and we take them, and the underlying questions they raise, very seriously.” – ✅ 

“We have policies and procedures in place that address misconduct and provide ways in which employees can report any inappropriate behavior.” – ✅ 

“The recent allegations and employee feedback have made it clear that we must do more as a company” – ✅ 

I could have told you what the statement would be without ever reading it. The formula is painfully obvious. It’s also straight up bullshit. The PR firm is working to smooth things over, Ubisoft is rushing out announcements of new games to change the focus of news coverage, a few people are resigning or will be fired, and nothing will actually change. 

As quoted in the Times piece, “‘They just purge the evildoers and think that they’re OK, not realizing that they’re all complicit and that there’s a culture that devalues women,’ said Professor Gray, who studies the gaming industry.”

Honestly, I think Professor Gray gives some of these companies too much credit. I think a lot of them do realize they’re complicit. They just don’t care.

In truth – we’re all complicit too. They don’t become billion dollar organizations alone.

Anyone wanna play?

This is not to say that companies are incapable of change, or that none ever have. There is some cautiously optimistic buzz around a few gaming companies that came under fire in previous years around their workplace culture. But again, so much of this buzz relies on leaders who are claiming to know all their mistakes and how to make lasting change. Will their efforts provide real change, or just a new veneer for the surface? That remains to be seen. 

In the meantime, we can’t afford to wait for every organization to have an internal reckoning. Or we’ll be waiting forever.

So what do we do? 

In truth, there are so many gaps in accountability. We live in a world where Boeing was allowed to do their own safety assessments, OSHA is missing in action in regards to protecting food and farm workers from Covid, and journalism is often impacted by the whims of advertisers and corporate sponsors. We can vote and hope that the political arena will move back towards a structure that holds corporations responsible, but even that usually only catches the most egregious abuses, and both major parties in America still virulently favor businesses over individuals. Supporting unions is important for workers’ rights, but there’s still a ton of pushback in many industries and many roadblocks to overcome.

Similar to the discussions of late about J.K. Rowling and our ability to separate the art from the artist, I think this is where individual accountability and choice comes into play. It is so easy to dismiss our role as individuals in changing culture, yet there is a great power in the choices of multiple people following a common cause.

The truth is, we often avoid these sorts of decisions, because it’s exhausting. It’s horrible to have to think about everything we do in these contexts. And in reality, none of us have time to examine every item that comes into our home for a background of corporate responsibility. 

But I think it’s important to try.

"Ok, so how do we say something along the lines of we're sorry and we screwed up, but without any chance of sounding genuine or like we really intend to change?"

Admittedly, when it comes to large groups of people committing to holding organizations accountable, it can be a long and slow process. Yet it has actually proven effective.

Let’s face it, the owner of the Washington NFL team clearly had no intention of changing the name of his franchise. If he had already been thinking of it, he wouldn’t have been forced to use the idiotic “Washington Football Team” placeholder until something more substantial gets run through focus groups. He didn’t learn, he didn’t become better, he didn’t make a change because he suddenly realized it was the right thing to do. This was a change that happened because the perspective of the public came to a point where it was no longer financially viable to keep the old, racist name.

This is the same reason that more and more companies are using marketing that works to appeal to people from different races, genders, sexual orientations, and gender identities. Sure, some of these companies are probably understanding the benefit of inclusive advertising from a social and moral perspective, but in the end, marketing is always about money. It’s just bad business to ignore a segment of the population who can add to your bottom line.

"I will never change our team name, never!!
"Um, Sir, we're losing advertisers due to public pressure..."
"I am happy to announce our new team name!"

There’s no way to do this perfectly. There’s no way to be the perfect consumer. But there are a lot of ways to be a better consumer. To acknowledge that our wants should not be superior to the safety and well-being of others.

There will always be challenges, finding a balance between what we can afford, and where we can access what we need. There are a number of companies like JBS that hide behind other distributors to stay safely anonymous when it comes to accountability. There will be other companies who cover their tracks well while doing harm.

Yet each step we take in the right direction, each time we pull back from supporting a company that engages in toxic practices, each time we ask for accountability, each time we ask questions about where things are sourced or how workers are treated, each time we support a small local business or farmer, each time we decide not to buy the latest, coolest release that led to multiple breakdowns for employees, we drive a tiny crack into the toxic monolith that is American workplace culture. Add enough cracks, and something gives.

We may lose out on a bit of fun. But frankly, in the end, what could be more fun that crashing the system and beating the bad guys? There’s nothing more video game than that.

Believing Without Seeing Vs Blind Faith

I’ve been thinking a great deal about belief lately. About how we come to hold certain beliefs, and why some of them are so hard to change. About why some people seem to embrace new perspectives and why others seem to never let go of viewpoints they learned as a child.

Recently, the town of Klamath Falls convinced itself, with help from local law enforcement, that buses of anti-facist protesters were being organized to come and damage property and hurt people within the town. Of course this never happened, because for one, antifa is not a formal organization, just a collection of autonomous groups that have become a political boogeyman for the right. For two, people of color and allies are way too smart to travel hours to a podunk town to start a fight with heavily armed white people when they’re in the midst of advocating for mass social, legal, and governmental change. The only result was that the local Black Lives Matter protesters who were peacefully protesting had to deal with the stress of this same group of heavily armed white people harassing them from across the street.

And when these buses full of boogeymen failed to appear? Some of the armed white people declared victory, claiming they had scared them off. Their deep belief in their own conspiracies even led to them denying that the local Black protesters lived in town. 

Can you imagine? Being so ingrained in your own perspective that when you see a person of a different race from you, you just refuse to believe that they can even possibly live in your town?

Now, I’m not going to delve too much into the fact that law enforcement promoted this false antifa claim, except to say that it’s yet more evidence that local police have deeply problematic ties with conservative and white supremacist culture. Which of course is why Black Lives Matter protests are happening in the first place. (And in case you were wondering, the law enforcement who promoted the idea are still claiming it was real information, even after the buses never materialized.)

But stepping away from the general cringiness of the people who believe Facebook posts about roving buses of anti-fascist criminals for a moment, I think it’s interesting to look at why they believed this so unabashedly.

Because on one hand, there are some things we need to believe in without seeing them. There is the need to believe people when they tell us their truths. We need to understand that the world we see and experience is not that same as what others experience. Even if there is no video evidence, even if it’s not “proven”, we owe it to others, especially those who are marginalized, to believe in what they deal with every day.

So in one case we should believe without seeing, in the other, it was a mistake. What’s the difference?


All of us live in our own reality. In the Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz refers to it as a “dream”. We all see our own version of this dream, influenced by the family we grew up in, the friends we have, the work we do, the education we receive, even the media we consume. To us as individuals, it is the only reality. Yet put a bunch of us together, and we have multiple realities. 

There’s been a number of interesting studies on memory. The more scientists study it, the more evidence there is that we misremember a great deal that we think is set in stone. The Satanic Panic of years ago was prompted by false memories created via therapy. Eyewitnesses are very easy to mislead into remembering details that were not present at the time of an incident. Childhood events that we believe we see with perfect clarity are not quite what we thought. Ask a group of people who were together when something important happened, and everyone will describe it a little differently. I think a big part of this is the plasticity in how our brain processes and stores information, but I think another part of it is that we are describing how events happened in our own personal reality. It’s true to us, just not the truth.

I think this is a very important distinction. Because when people refuse to believe that there is such a thing as privilege or oppression, or think that prejudice ended when Obama was elected, what they are saying is that their reality is “the truth”. 

It’s a very similar concept to religion. The majority of religions think they are the only ones who have it right. And maybe one does, I certainly can’t say for sure. But that’s the point – no one can. No one has the absolute truth. We can find ideas that comfort us or help us feel a sense of community, but anyone claiming to have a monopoly on the truth is trying to push their reality on to everyone else. And considering that the world contains billions of people who believe differently, that’s a rather vast undertaking (and also leads to war, oppression, and despair).

Being able to recognize that your own personal reality is not the same for everyone, and that other people’s truths can be completely valid takes a strong degree of self-awareness. A willingness to question yourself and what you believe. A willingness to do something that might be scary. Which takes me to the next element.

Driven by Fear

As a white woman, I’ve tried to do a lot of work to be aware of my biases. Because so many of them are unconscious, and ingrained in me just by having grown up in a white supremacist society, they can pop up at the most random of moments. It’s important to learn to catch them, and to question them. 

But there is one consistency I have noticed about when they most often tend to arise. And it’s when I’m feeling fear. If I’m watching something on the news that triggers anxiety, I’m more likely to see some pretty stupid thoughts come into my head. Fortunately, I’ve done the work to recognize them, and dissect them back into nothingness. But for those who haven’t, these thoughts are likely to trigger behavior that supports them – i.e. seeing a Facebook rumor and grabbing your gun. It definitely doesn’t help if you’re surrounded by people who promote these same fear-based ideas.

The most recent John Oliver segment on the police was quite powerful, but what really stayed with me was his clip of author Kimberly Jones, who said bluntly and correctly, “white people are lucky we’re looking for equality and not revenge”. 

That’s something that came to mind seeing the story of Klamath Falls. The white people who are expecting violence to come at them in the midst of this push for social change are reacting this way, because that’s what they would do. They would be looking for revenge. They’re terrified about not being the race on top, because deep inside they know how they’ve treated people on the bottom. Their reality, their personal truth, is all about the fear.

Social Fear

There’s also another piece to beliefs based on fear. This is the fear that rears its head when a family member says something racist, or promotes a bigoted idea. When a friend reveals that they really don’t like “that kind” of person. Fear of confrontation. The fear of making a fuss. The fear of things being awkward or uncomfortable. Of starting a disagreement. 

I was listening to NPR this week, liberal snowflake that I am, and they were talking about how few white parents talk to their children about race. Many of them include parents who believe in equality, but don’t know how to talk to their kids about this topic. It feels uncomfortable, so it doesn’t happen. This is certainly not the only topic too many parents avoid due to awkward feelings. It’s far too common. 

These are the types of fear that seem small, until something big happens. Like when a video is released showing someone being killed by an authority that claims to protect. Like when a woman comes forward to share her experience of being assaulted by a man in an important position of power. Like when an institution you’ve supported reveals a willingness to let children suffer over holding those in power accountable. Then suddenly that fear of speaking up spirals into a fear of standing up to authority, shaking up your core beliefs, and potentially losing something that you have always believed vital to your life.

I certainly understand the impulse. I come from a very conflict avoidant background. We often want to “keep the peace”. And yet, when we allow ourselves to be driven by this fear, it means that there is a vast number of people who get to be comfortably racist or sexist or homophobic, without ever being challenged. It means there are children growing up who take on the oppressive messages of our society, because their parents didn’t give them anything else to believe. It means that there are people in positions of authority who get to continue hurting others, because they know no one will want to make a scene or risk losing a community.

From the small to the big, this kind of avoidant behavior has an impact. It has a cost. Of course there’s a huge cost to the marginalized and oppressed. Every time a white family lets drunk Uncle Joe go on a racist rant, or let’s grandma talk about “those people” around the kids, it casts a stone that ripples out to rock those on the outer edges. Every time we decide that we don’t need to hold institutions accountable, because it’s easier to just pretend it never happened, people will continue to get hurt. 

But there’s also an internal cost. To one’s sense of integrity, and self-respect. The difference between looking back at a life where one chose to do the right thing, and where one chose to go the route of a fictional “peace”.

Critical Thinking

I’m hoping to write an entire piece on critical thinking soon, because holy cow, do we need to talk about it. And true, some of the piece will likely be about people who somehow hear the president’s incoherent ramblings and interpret them as genius, but to be honest, I see this lack of critical thinking in so many arenas. There’s such a tendency to see something shocking on Facebook and to press the share button, without taking the time to research the idea. I’ve seen people tell others to “do the research” while only showing a YouTube video as their source. 

Even those things we can hear from supposed “authority” can be incredibly manipulative. Governments, churches, and other institutions have frequently used various forms of propaganda to fit their own agenda. Right now we’re seeing a number of state governments downplay the seriousness of the pandemic, because we live in a capitalist society, and the vast number of politicians have been trained to value money over human lives. Many churches are claiming to be critical services, when drawing their community together is only going to cost lives, and there are online alternatives to keep people safe.

It’s tempting to believe those in positions of power, regardless of what they’re saying. We want to believe someone knows what they’re doing. We want to believe that all companies have our interests at heart. We want to believe a priest who tells us we’ll be protected through faith. We want to believe that a pill could solve all our problems, that buying a product will make us happy, that believing in something strongly enough can make it so.

But wanting isn’t enough.

Refusing to think critically about what you read or watch or hear from others, or even to think critically about what’s in your own belief system, leaves you vulnerable to a great deal of bad and manipulative information. It hurts you, and it hurts those around you.

The wild thing about a great deal of the manipulative tactics being used today is that we have already seen this done before with great effect. We know these tactics, we know how they are structured, and what their goals are. And yet we have people living today who happily believe it all, hook, line, and sinker.

We can do better. Just by thinking more.

So Now What?

I don’t have any grand conclusion or polished thesis here. The frustrating thing about people who don’t look internally or think critically is that there’s not much you can do to change them. They have to want to change. They have to have that lightbulb moment, where they realize things are a little different than they were led to believe.

The wonderful thing is that some people are having that moment right now. The protests and continuous videos of police violence have actually been breaking through to some, making them reevaluate some assumptions. I heard a woman on the radio yesterday, admitting she taught her children the concept of colorblindness, because it seemed the right thing. And now she knows it was a mistake, and is working with her kids to change things for the better.

The sad thing is that some people will never have that moment. I watched that video of Trump sadly trudging back home after a poorly attended rally, and although I laughed at the music videos that people made to mock him, I also felt a moment of pity. This is a man who has been mired in his own reality his entire life. He is so mired in his superior, dismal, dark little world that he is incapable of learning, of seeing things differently, of opening his world to those who are different to him.

Because what all of this really means, the self-awareness, the willingness to value other people’s perspectives, to care about the safety and well-being of others, is the choice to live a life of connection. Pushing people away because of fear of the other is pushing away some of the best people you would ever have the chance to know. Refusing to question your beliefs makes your world smaller, and colder, and darker.

But when you’re open? How very beautiful it can be on the other side.

Sunday Reflection – When the Artist Fails Us

With everything going on right now, J.K. Rowling revealing herself to be at Orson Scott Card levels of “terrible person who wrote a good thing” may not be on a great many people’s radars. I try to follow a number of creators who are from different backgrounds than myself, and this includes queer, transgender, and nonbinary folks. They’ve given me a window to the pain that many of them are feeling right now, as a series that they loved and derived meaning from has suddenly been ripped apart by the shallow words of a narcissistic woman. 

To be sure, the truth about Rowling has been written on the wall for some time now. Instead of openly admitting she could have written the Potter universe to be more diverse, she tried to retroactively cram in diversity (“Dumbledore was super gay the whole time, I swear!”). Instead of engaging with different world cultures in appropriate ways to expand her universe, she used stereotypes and appropriated culturally sensitive subjects to her own use. And for some time now, she’s been giving indications of being yet another white “feminist” who centers her own victimhood over the horrific way that transgender and nonbinary people are treated in our society.

I’m not going to delve too deeply into how ridiculous her Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism is, although I encourage everyone to read more about it for themselves. (This article has some good background on why TERFism has become so prominent in the U.K. in particular).

But this has all caused me to once again reflect on the separation of art and the artist. It’s a big gray muddled mess of an issue, one with no clear answer. I’ve always loved Hitchcock films, and discovering that he was a complete bastard is hard. Yet I do occasionally still watch them, consoling myself that the man is dead, and no longer profiting. I still think Ender’s Game is an amazing book, despite Card being the human equivalent of toe fungus. Sean Connery famously gave an interview about how it was totally fair to hit women, yet I still laugh at his portrayal of Henry Jones Sr. 

On the other hand, I can’t look at anything with Kevin Spacey or Woody Allen in it right now. Seeing the word Weinstein on a film’s introductory credits makes me cringe. Famous artists, like Picasso, who were excused for being predatory jerks because of their so-called “genius”, have made me reevaluate what supposedly makes their art so great in the first place. 

And now we have Rowling. I have all her Potter books still, and had intended to reread for some time. Yet with every new story about her, I grow less and less inclined to pick them back up. She already has my money, so it doesn’t make much difference, but there’s a part of me that just doubts I can enjoy them. I’m guessing I’ll pick up on many more subtle prejudices than I did when I first read them. I’ll notice how almost everyone is white, and celebrates Christmas. I’ll pick up the coded language about the goblins and werewolves. I’ll see her descriptions of Nagini the snake, and remember that she decided it was a good idea to use the most recent films to insert the fiction that an Asian woman was trapped in that body, to then have her head cut off in a “heroic” moment of the final book. 

I have no answers here. I think this is a choice we all have to make for ourselves. What feels right, what we can live with. 

In the meantime, I know a number of people still struggle with the idea of transgenderism. We grow up in a society that is very focused on the binary, and most of us never went beyond our high school science class understanding of sex and gender (talk to or read some actual scientists, it is way more complicated than you think). Yet I would remind everyone, including myself, that if you’ve learned anything during these most recent protests, I would hope it would be that you need to take the time to learn about things that you don’t understand or that make you uncomfortable. If you have never felt uncomfortable with your gender role, or are really glad to be the sex you are, you are privileged. And privilege comes with responsibility. Listen to transgender people, it will teach you a great deal. 

Sunday Reflection – Listening, Not Lecturing

Yesterday I was on Facebook, and happened to see a post by the moderator of an animal adoption group that spoke of Martin Luther King Jr, and saying that he “burned nothing, and changed the world”.

Ironically, this moderator has always made a big deal about no political posts, and yet they felt comfortable posting a meme that misused the image of MLK to promote the idea that there is a “right” way for people of color to advocate for themselves.

White people – don’t do this.

Beyond the fact that white people who usually quote or meme MLK actually know very little about his actual beliefs, and just love to promote the white ideal of what he was, posting things like this show an utter lack of understanding of why Black people are angry, and the fact that they have every right to be.

I’ve talked before on this blog about how those in positions of superiority will gatekeep emotions to keep others in check. Once again, there are people who are insisting there is a “correct” way to fight back against a society that dehumanizes and punishes people for their skin color, gender, and sexuality.

It’s supremacist BS. Any group the only does the “correct” means of fighting back, wouldn’t be fighting back at all. Which is, of course, what the supremacists want, even if it’s at a subconscious level.

This is where the listening comes in.

It’s understandable to find riots scary. But fear is no excuse not to listen. It’s no excuse not to educate ourselves, learn what the systemic issues are that have led us to this point, and to understand that constant oppression has a cost for everyone.

So, white people – start listening. You want people to believe you’re not racist? Then you have to be actively anti-racist. Stop clutching your pearls, and really listen.

For a good start, here’s a moving video by Trevor Noah that speaks to how we’ve gotten here, based on recent events.

Crisis, Insecurity, and Facing the Unknown

One of the earliest horror movies I remember seeing as a teenager was The Haunting, the 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel. I don’t remember too much about the actual storyline, besides the customary “people spend the night in a haunted house to test for the paranormal” plot, but what I do remember is the chilling door scene.

Anyone who’s seen it knows what I’m talking about. For those of you who haven’t, there’s an intensely creepy scene where two of the characters are huddled together in a bedroom while an unseen presence starts to loudly knock in the hallway. The knocks get louder as the presence gets closer to their room, until the bedroom door literally starts to bend inward from the force on the other side.

That scene has always stayed with me, not only because of how well done it was, but because it was the first time I realized how enjoyable being scared can be. 

There’s a lot of people who avoid horror, and I absolutely sympathize. I for one can’t stand any kind of gore, and it’s incredibly hard to find good horror movies that are exclusively based on fear and suspense rather than disgust.

And yet, there is such an incredible power when it comes to fear evoked in a form of media. 

As I spent more time working in social services and witnessing some terrible aspects of humanity, I started to avoid any kind of media that felt too “real”. I couldn’t stand family or legal dramas, especially if kids were abused. I couldn’t handle anything that reminded me of the world I saw at work every day. But what I could handle was fantasy, science fiction, and horror. 

Alfred Hitchcock famously described the difference between suspense and surprise, using the analogy of a bomb going off and shocking the audience (the surprise) versus the audience witnessing the bomb being placed, and waiting for it to go off (the suspense). As he stated, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

And yes, good horror movies have their moments of surprise, but the suspense has to be there too. We know the characters are in peril, before they do. We know something bad is going to happen, while they’re ignoring the signs. When the knocking creeps closer, as the characters huddle in fear, we hold our breath right along with them, waiting to see what will happen.

But there’s another element to good horror movies that is, in my mind, the most important. It’s what truly draws me to them, and why I find them a tempting break from reality. And that’s the magic of catharsis. The moment when the tension finally breaks. The moment where we can finally let that breath out.

And that’s what it really comes down to, isn’t it, with horror in media versus real life? A well-scripted catharsis, that gives us the ability to release the tension, let it all go, and just breath.

"Alright monster, let's do this!"

The Past as Prologue

I’ve always loved history. Despite the extreme bias in who often drives the narrative of what happened and why, there’s so much to be learned in looking at the past. So much has changed over time, and yet so much about humanity remains the same. I find it fascinating.

When I fly in planes, I think of all the people who lived who could never have imagined seeing our world from 10,000 feet above it. When I’m standing in old ruins, whether they be an Anasazi cliff dwelling or a medieval fortress in Germany, I think of the people who lived then, what they felt, what they experienced.

However, there’s an illusion when it comes to history. In order for our brains to process historical events, we tend to break it into pieces. Here’s where the Civil War happened and these were the major players; this was the Depression and the impact on the public. Everything is neatly chopped up into sections, like it was in our high school history books. 

It’s not wrong we do this, it’s a way to make sense without overloading our brains. Yet in reality, history is not a series of events, but a river, always flowing. There’s what we can see on the surface, and the things buried deeply underneath, but it’s all connected, and it never stops. 

We see things like this pandemic as a singular event, a major one, but singular nonetheless. Yet we are only here today because of so many choices and actions, some harking back to generations ago, that set a stage on which we now find ourselves players.

This is not an entirely new feeling, at least for those of us who are trying to take accountability and responsibility for the inequities in our culture. How do you make things right for the actions of ancestors who made choices ages before we were ever on the scene?

In my mind what truly feels overwhelming at the moment is not an awareness of a singular event, but rather the sudden realization that we are a part of this river, and we are being swept at high speeds into an unknown destination. We have always been a part of it, but we don’t always feel it. And feeling it is scary.

The truth is that we didn’t have to be here. We really didn’t. There are countries that took this seriously from day one, took all responsible measures with testing and quarantining. They had strong teams to work on managing the crisis, and strong leadership from the top positions. 

Yet we live in a country where our president understands nothing and cares even less, where some states still have not issued a stay at home order, where people still think it’s appropriate to gather in large groups to celebrate a Christian holiday. Where people claim that “freedom” matters above all, above the health of the most vulnerable among us (as long as everything goes according to their own personal criteria for freedom, and they don’t have to consider the rights of anyone who lives differently from them).

The stage for all of this was set such a long time ago, when it became the norm that a philosophy of individualism was held above all else. When it was decided to pretend that wealth and safety was only obtained by those who deserved it, and the rest of us were lesser. When people doubled down on using religion as a proof of superiority. And it’s only been enhanced by all the many choices over time that led to a narcissistic and scientifically illiterate shell of a man being held in high power.

How do you get catharsis from that?

"I don't need to listen to scientists, I'm a natural genius!"

When Leadership Matters Most

Not too long after the pandemic escalated, I found myself watching Angela Merkel deliver a national address to Germany. She isn’t my national leader, and I don’t know how much we would align politically, but I felt a desperate need to hear someone in a position of world power speak calmly and intelligently about what was happening.

We all know that during a crisis, leadership is key. Strong leadership is the difference between calm and chaos, lives saved and lives lost. Humans are social, communal creatures, but we also have strong fears, and good leadership helps us manage them.

There is nothing like a crisis for highlighting what both good and bad leadership looks like.

We’ve seen leaders step up in a myriad of ways. Politicians who were struggling with popularity before the crisis started are showing strong skills we couldn’t see in calmer times. Doctors and scientists are being calm, rational voices amidst a great deal of chaos. Managers are being supportive and understanding of the demands of trying to simultaneously work and parent at home. And individuals in every conceivable kind of situation are making sacrifices for the common good.

Then there’s the other side. The CEOs and managers who insist that their employees keep working in inadequate safety with insufficient protection while at the same time, they spend vast amounts of money on marketing to promote the idea that they care. The politicians who try to claim they “just learned” that asymptomatic people can spread the virus, despite it being a known fact for months, as an excuse for lack of decisive action. The people who think they can disbelieve a virus out of existence, or blame it on some random piece of technology, rather than take the science seriously.

The frustrating thing is that although leadership matters at all levels, strong leadership at the mid level cannot make up for inadequate leadership at the top. It makes a difference, absolutely; it saves lives, for sure, but for any organization or group to successfully weather a crisis, you need that strong, committed, intelligent leadership from every level.

All of us can step up and do our best. Yet a poor CEO can sink an entire company, a bad president can traumatize a nation.


Searching for Catharsis

So, here we are. In the midst of an pandemic, with poor national leadership, and a great deal of unknown elements facing us in the coming months.

We are dealing with a huge amount of trauma. People are being laid off, or forced to continue working with inadequate safety precautions. People living in poverty and people of color are facing hugely inequitable treatment in health care and employment. People are trying to work, and home school, and keep sane in our new non-normal. And to top it all off, we are surrounded by those delightful human beings that demand we must continuously be productive with our time or we are failures who lack discipline. (Stop telling me that Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine, Bob, I don’t care).

This isn’t a story. We don’t get the triumphant moment, where the music swells and we confidently stride into the night, having figured out exactly how to defeat the monster. The monster is everywhere, and every time. The greed, the selfishness, the prioritization of wealth over all.

So how do we deal with this kind of horror?

"Into the bin!"

Holding on to our values

Every year, on the first day of the leadership program I facilitated, we would hand out an activity sheet to help our participants identify their top values. They would start by highlighting ten, and then we’d make them cut it down to five, and then to three. We would always hear a bit of grumbling, some “how am I supposed to choose”, even some creative attempts to find alternate words that would encapsulate multiple meanings. Finally, in the end, they would have their three. And then, as the year went on, they would forget about it. But we didn’t. And at graduation, we presented their values back to them, as a reminder of what brought them meaning.

My co-facilitator had designed the activity based on an exercise in a book called The Politics of Meaning: Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism by Michael Lerner. There’s a fair amount of evidence that meaningful work has more to do with employee satisfaction that pure compensation. We knew we couldn’t remove the big stressors for our students. We couldn’t change the reality of working in human services, or save them from bad management decisions. What we could do was provide them with an alternate perspective, a reminder of why they chose to work in this field in the first place.

I recently heard a snippet of a podcast called Every Little Thing, where they talked to a man who repairs label printers. He’d never thought of his job as essential, yet he works with a medical company that does coronavirus tests, and uses the labels to ship all over the country. In other words, him coming in and servicing the machine is critical to saving lives. His dedication to his work has an entirely new sense of meaning.

Right now, we can’t erase the bad decisions that have put us where we are. But we can remember our values, our reasons why. There are a great many jokes being made about saving the world while watching Netflix in our underwear, but regardless, everything we do right now matters. It has meaning.

Whether we are high risk ourselves, or simply love and respect people at risk, we are choosing, every day, to put our community, to put humanity, first.

"I'm sorry I scared you earlier, I only wear this because I'm immunocompromised!"

Finding the Precious Amidst the Inane

My best friend lives in another state, and for many years now we have met online, almost every weekend, to play a game together. It keeps us in touch, we can chat about our lives, and then we can run around with big swords and hit things. I’ve often called it a form a therapy.

Since all of this started, I’ve realized that it’s much more than that. It’s hard to even explain how critical my friend and our sessions are to my mental health and sense of safety, but she is truly an invaluable part in working through loneliness and keeping me sane right now. Meeting up and playing a game may seem so insignificant on the surface, but underneath, it is so much more.

Everywhere you look right now, we are surrounded by the precious. The families finding ways to visit through glass, teachers learning new technology to support their students, volunteers signing up to adopt elders in care homes for online visits, animal adoptions increasing while people are at home, nature being rejuvenated during the break from humanity, health care workers playing joyful music every time someone comes off a ventilator.

I have another friend who is extremely artistic, and will often stop to take a picture of a crack on the sidewalk, or a leaf against a window. She possesses an amazing eye for photography, and the smallest things can suddenly turn into art in her hands. She has such an incredible ability to see the beautiful in the most mundane things.

We’re going to be experiencing a lot of difficult feelings right now, but our other emotions are still right there. We may have to adjust perspective to see it sometimes, but there will still be things that will make you smile, laugh, happy cry, and gasp in awe.

You have no idea how happy this bobcat sighting made my mother.
Taking Action When We Can
Our world is filled with contradictions right now. We need connection, but we can’t be together. We want to take action, but we can’t leave our homes. We want to help the vulnerable, but we need to give them space.
I’ll be the first to admit that there are days I get absolutely nothing done. Isolation exhaustion is definitely a thing, and there are times that it just gets overwhelming. There’s so many difficult feelings that are completely normal when dealing with something on the magnitude of a pandemic. Anyone who’s previously experienced depression is already familiar with contradiction, in that you often know logically what will help, but there are days you just lack the capacity to make it happen.
It’s also clear that we’re all a great deal more stressed and anxious. I belong to a beachcombing group on Facebook, where people will post pictures of our beautiful beaches as well as good finds, like agates or petrified wood. It’s normally quite fun. But lately, every time someone posts a picture of going to the beach, even if they are local, others will start complaining they should have “stayed home” and that this person is “part of the problem”. It’s frustrating, because I think most of us recognize that there’s a balance that needs to be struck between staying inside for community health and getting outdoors for our mental health. And yet these few people are only able to manage their stress by going on Facebook and getting angry at others for doing what they believe is inappropriate. We can have empathy for them, and understand that this is how they are dealing with their anxiety, but it’s not exactly helpful in any capacity.
So how can we deal with our feelings in a healthy way? There’s a great many resources out there on ways to self care, such as this list compiled by the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, so I won’t repeat them all. But I think there are a couple things worth highlighting.
For one, there’s a lot that we can’t control. The people who comment on those Facebook posts are trying to exert control over others, because they feel that lack of control in their own lives. It’s understandable, but it’s not constructive. Focusing on what we can do, what we can control, is critical.

Credit for this awesome infographic goes to The Counseling Teacher, who even has an editable version you can make for yourself or your family.

The other piece I find essential is taking action whenever I can. It’s not the same kinds of action all the time. There are days where I just clean, because cleaning my physical space helps me feel sorted mentally. There are days where my action is talking to a friend, or writing for just an hour, or finding new recipes online. And yes, there are days where I can be more active politically or engage with our world a bit more. But every day isn’t about saving the world – it can’t be.

It’s easy to feel like we’re not doing enough. I know, because I feel that way all the time. And there will always be those around us who want to criticize and tell us how we should be living our lives. But in the end, it’s about doing what actions we can, in that moment, for ourselves, and those we love.

"I think today is a self care day."

I want to take a moment here, and acknowledge that none of the above is easy or simple. There’s people right now who feel frustrated at being told “put it into perspective” when they’re dealing with a lot of anger and sadness. If someone just lost their job, thinking about appreciating the beauty around them is not going to be as vital as thinking about how to feed their family. If someone has a loved one who is sick, trying to force them to be optimistic is not going to help.

Dealing with trauma is very personal, and we all do it in our own way. Find what works for you. Just remember to ask for help when you need it.

"Feeling a little down...maybe I'll call Etta."

It’s taken me a long while to find the words to write about what’s going on the world right now. I knew I needed to write about it though, because writing is how I process, and I have to process to cope.

I wasn’t held back by writer’s block by any means, rather it was more a writer’s flood, a torrent of feelings and thoughts that were so interconnected and convoluted, I could barely get them out through my fingers for the longest time. And what I could get out was in fits and starts.

But the longer I’ve been sitting at home with my thoughts, the more I knew I needed to get the feelings out. Keeping it all in isn’t healthy, not for anyone. So here we are.

I hope you all get a chance to start processing your feelings. Whether you write, or talk, or make art, or chop wood, or whatever it takes.

As John Oliver said in his most recent segment, “The real test here isn’t whether or not our country will get through this. It will. The question is how we get through this and what kind of country we want to be on the other side.”

We live in an individualistic society, but we don’t have to be individualistic people. We can value our own needs and happiness while respecting the needs and happiness of others. We can suffer through this to become less, or we can survive it to become more.

Let’s remember to breath and find catharsis when we can. Have grace for ourselves when we can’t.

And if you do nothing else, remember to vote.

Leadership that Makes a Difference

One of biggest challenges when writing a blog about leadership is that it’s very easy to get laser focused on all the bad. Which, to be sure, there is plenty of. Yet if we always focus on what’s wrong, then it can start to feel insurmountable to actually change it. If everything is broken, then how can it ever be fixed?

It can be hard to see sometimes, but there is a great deal worth appreciating and encouraging. There are some amazing assets to the workplace, that hold the line against chaos, advocate for a better environment, and create change in a myriad of ways every day.

I’m talking, of course, about people.

Last time I talked about the bad leaders. But today isn’t about them. Today is about the good ones. Let’s talk about how good leaders make a difference.

I know I’m a broken record with this point, but I’m a huge believer that good leaders can be found at every level of an organization. No matter the level of formal authority, there are always those who make a difference, help people, support important change, and leave a lasting mark.

This list is not about positional power, but acts of true leadership.

It’s too easy and too common to focus on our flaws, but I hope everyone reading takes a moment to acknowledge that you have definitely done all the things on this list. Some of them you do every day. There has been someone struggling who gained hope through your words. There has been someone who was overlooked that you helped feel seen. There’s someone who thinks about you, and the impact you have had on their lives, more often than you can ever know.

This is not just about the good leaders out there, but also the good leaders right here. I hope you own it.

"Hell yeah, I'm good!"

Item 1: Listening.

When it comes to skills that people take for granted, listening is at the top of the list. There are a lot of lovely people out there who I only see occasionally, because I will spend the entire time listening to every little thought they have. They may be charismatic or humorous, but small doses are best.

Then there are those who listen only until they can interject with their own story, or opinion, or advice. For example, the manager who “empathized” with hearing about my chronic migraines by telling me about the time he had to go to the hospital for a completely unrelated medical issue. They can appear to be listeners, but it’s not a true give and take.

True listening, with empathy and compassion, withholding judgement, and not jumping straight to advice, is difficult. Some of us come by it naturally, and some of us need to work on it, same as any other skill.

That’s why it’s so valuable when you find someone who does listen. I’ve had co-workers pull me out of the office for a walk around the block or to grab a coffee because they could tell I was upset, and wanted to give me space to share. I’ve had managers take me out to lunch so I could talk freely about my feelings in a neutral environment. But even the small moments, a five minute chat to vent a frustration or run through an idea, make a huge difference.

I’ve always hated crying at work (a feeling that is common for working women who are often criticized for having emotions), but I remember the first time it happened. I was being treated very passively aggressively by the woman I was supposed to assist in the office and it was starting to take a toll. I went to our mutual manager to talk about what was happening. I think what felt truly remarkable in the moment was that she immediately believed me and cared deeply about my experience. Passive aggressiveness is something that is so easy to gaslight, and a lot of people would have dismissed my concerns as “being too sensitive”. When it came to action, the wheels of bureaucracy turned extremely slowly, but just knowing I had my manager’s support made a huge difference.

The truth is, when you have people in your life who authentically listen, you feel validated and seen. You feel less alone, even when some new sort of bureaucratic insanity makes you question your judgement. The ship may be taking on water, but you’ve got someone in your corner to help you bail.

"And then she said it was normal for interns to pick up her drycleaning and buy her coffee..."

Item 2: Providing a feeling of safety for people.

On my last day facilitating a particular leadership program, one of the students came up to talk to me at the end of class. He told me that on the very first day, we had been doing a small group activity, where I was facilitating his group. He was trying to make a point about something, but it didn’t come out the way he meant, and a couple of others in the group had pushed back. He told me how at that point, I spoke up, clarified his meaning, and smoothed over the conversation. He said he had been really nervous about class up to that point, but that made him feel like our program was going to be a safe place.

The funny thing is, I have zero memory of this experience. It’s a pretty normal part of facilitation. But I was so touched that this student not only remembered it, but that he talked about feeling a sense of safety.

It made me realize how often others have done the same for me. It’s easy to remember the unsafe experiences, the managers who have clear biases, the meetings where you are ignored or dismissed, the conversations where you are marginalized.

But the truth is, I developed from someone terrified of speaking out in class as a child to someone facilitating classrooms. That was only ever possible because of the people who made me feel safe as I developed my career. Safe to make mistakes, safe to laugh at myself, safe to try over again and do things a little bit differently.

Safety is incredibly important, especially for those who are part of any marginalized community. Even in the most well-intentioned workplaces, unconscious biases can lead to men speaking over women, or white workers dismissing the concerns of workers of color. Good leaders help everyone feel like they have a voice.

Interestingly, as I was working on this post, a former co-worker posted this article on cultivating a sense of belonging in the workplace. What I think the piece really nails is how many organizations want to look at diversity in terms of metrics. They think that if you have x number of a particular kind of employee, then hey, problem solved! Yet this honestly means very little, especially in cultures that have been entrenched in biased behavior for decades. What truly matters is if all people, of all backgrounds, feel like they have a voice.

"I am so sorry, I had no idea I wasn't hearing you all equally! Thank you so much for speaking up."

Item 3: Being optimistic yet transparent

I have to be honest, I am very skeptical when it comes to the use of positive language. This is not about attitude or perspective, but about how some people use positivity as a cudgel. I used to have a friend who would chastise me if I ever dared to voice a worry out loud. “Don’t put it out there!”, she would scold. It was extremely frustrating, because she was essentially telling me that if my worry came true, it was my fault for speaking about it.

It’s very similar to the kind of language you see represented so much in Multi-Level Marketing scams, where people are told that their lack of success has nothing to do with being caught up in a pyramid scheme, but is entirely their fault for not being positive enough or working hard enough.

And this kind of language has sadly infiltrated a great number of workplaces. The idea that “we’re all a family” so it’s ok for you to be asked to do unpaid overtime. The concept that you shouldn’t complain, because other people have it so much worse. That you should be grateful for having a job at all. Even the rampant escalation of buzzwords, where your valid concerns are met with a “Oh, we plan to maximize our motivation metric with an optimization of emotional validity and economic incentivization”, which let’s face it, is a management trick to essentially say “eff you, dude, we’re not doing a dang thing to help you.”.

Which is why I really value leaders who are both optimistic and transparent. I think the combination is incredibly important.

Real optimism is not looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, or throwing out positive language to avoid actual accountability. Actual optimism is saying that I see the best in you and what you are capable of, and I think we can work together to overcome this next obstacle. We don’t pretend the obstacle is not there, or that there won’t be unpredictable challenges coming our way. That’s where the transparency comes in. But we know that together we can do our best, and our best makes a difference.

I often think of the manager who recruited me into the training unit in the first place. I met her when I interviewed for a position, and didn’t get it. Yet she called me afterwards, and asked if I would like feedback. We talked for a long time, and she had extremely helpful suggestions for getting additional experience. She didn’t sugarcoat anything, but was also able to tell me about all the strengths she saw in me, and why she thought there was value in helping me get closer to the qualifications she was looking for. Then later on, when she needed to fill a new position, she called me.

She was always encouraging, always interested in my development and success. She had also worked for the agency for forty years, and knew exactly what challenges were likely to arise in every new situation. She never pretended that the agency was some shiny happy place where we could hold hands and sing like happy little elves if we just had the right attitude. But she always let us know that she had faith in us. That’s the source of real positivity.

"This new policy is going to be a challenge for us. But let's brainstorm some solutions together."

Item 4: Never giving up.

When I think of the amazing leaders who have influenced me, I think of how they listened, encouraged me, made me feel safe. But above all else, what stands out most clearly for me is the tenacity with which they keep fighting the good fight.

Now, let’s be clear. I know I’m biased as someone who has quit a job, but I don’t believe that quitting equals giving up. I will never regret prioritizing my mental health, and having left an unhealthy workplace has encouraged me to advocate for others who are dealing with the same thing.

So I don’t want anyone who has left a bad situation to ever feel guilty for that. In fact, protecting ourselves ensures that we have the energy and mental fortitude to keep doing what needs to be done.

When I talk of never giving up, I’m talking about the big picture. About the things that mean more than any one job or office. I’m talking about trying to make the world better, bit by tiny bit.

Often, when I want to be inspired by leadership, I look at some of the young people who are fighting for stronger environmental policy or better gun control. These are literal children, still in school, and yet they show more meaningful leadership than our actual government. They get called names, accused of being plants, and are bullied by people twice or three times their age, and yet they maintain such steady, consistent, thoughtful dedication to doing what is right.

Having leaders who will step up, speak truth to power, advocate for everyone, and refuse to engage in toxic conduct can make a world of difference. Often these people are not the ultimate authority. Often they are holding the line against those who failed upwards, who promote their own self-satisfaction against their employees’ well-being. But their influence is immeasurable.

I’ve been so fortunate to have many amazing mentors in the workplace, all at very different levels of power. These are people who have definitely been hurt by the system, and yet they maintain the integrity and moral fortitude to keep advocating for change. They don’t just want to make things better for themselves, but for everyone. They may get knocked down, but they never get knocked out.

"Just catching my breath, but don't worry...I'm just getting started."

In many ways, writing about the positive is harder than writing about the negative. But when I think about what keeps me going, it’s the examples of leadership that inspired this post.

To play my geek card, and quote Doctor Who, “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant.”

Thanks to everyone who’s added to my list of good things.

Amplifying Voices – Chaya M. Milchtein: Don’t Call Me ‘Baby’

The more I learn about leadership and running a successful workplace, the more baffled I get at people who are so entrenched in their sexist views, they will tank their own business to keep these archaic beliefs alive. Keeping women out of an industry simply for the fact of being women is such a stupid thing, but sadly, still so prevalent. And yet, as Chaya Milchtein points out, there are industries that would greatly benefit from becoming more welcoming to women. Here’s the link to her article, “Don’t Call Me ‘Baby’: How Sexism is Fueling the Employment Crisis in the Auto Repair Industry”.

I remember being greatly relieved after I moved recently, and visited my local dealership for the first time. As soon as I walked through the door and saw not just one woman, but many women, working there, I knew I would be treated more appropriately and respectfully.

More women are opening their own shops, and more women are deliberately seeking out women-owned places, or male-owned shops that make treating women well a priority. Women are tired of dealing with “honey” or “baby” or “sweetie” or being asked where their husband is. Women are making a choice to prioritize their own well-being and safety.

There’s still a long way to go, but women have more options then ever before. And we owe sexist businesses nothing. Want to stay open? Here’s a helpful tip – grow up and join the 21st century.

Side note – Milchtein also runs a website to support women and LGBTQ+ with car maintenance – check it out here: Mechanic Shop Femme.


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