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my heart breaks at our inability to be with suffering. my mind, body, and spirit hurt at our numbing–in all the ways we distance ourselves from the pain we experience personally and collectively.

this weekend, i was in a workshop on dismantling racism. an elderly african- american man stood to share work he had done around racial reconciliation. as he spoke, a crack open up within him and he poured out his truth of what it means to be a black man today in this country. he wept, beating his chest repeating, “i am weary. i am sick and tired. i just want to be seen as man. not a black man. only a man.” his truth pierced through me and i felt in communion with him, joined in our shared humanity and in right relationship. and yet, the group moved on without acknowledging in any way this moment of sacred truth-telling. other participants simply proceeded as business-as-usual, giving updates on trainings and activities, as had been directed. i attempted to articulate my feelings of discomfort and stumbled. i felt small and alone and weak as our group–myself included–was incapable of being present to his pain, and our own collective pain.

i’ve been studying JoAnna Macy’s Work that Reconnects alongside adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy all while engaged in the work of racial justice and healing and systems change. here’s what i am seeing with increased clarity: our ability to be responsive to the needs in front us–whether those are our’s personally, our child’s, our friend’s, our organization’s, our world’s–will be unlocked only through growing our capacity to be present with suffering.

as living systems, we are interconnected. we exist as part of a larger whole. while this is a spiritual worldview for me, science has offered the clearest insight into this through systems thinking and emergent theory. we only have to look at nature (our own bodies!) to understand that the health of the whole depends on the health of the self and vice-versa. life is a beautifully complex dynamic set of processes that channel ever-flowing energy and information. when those channels aren’t working and information is shut down, there is sickness, disease, death. pain signals where to point intention and attention, diagnosing the overall health and wellness of the living system, at that moment.

experiencing pain unleashes power. pain is a bridge, a connector. through pain, we join our whole selves, we join with others. through pain, we heal. we open up to a vastness of life force and that opening generates power. this power is a different sort of power than the kind of power generated through white supremacist, patriarchal power structures. it is not power over. it is power with. it not mine but moves through me and connects me to you and all other life. for me, this power is God, Spirit, Life, Love.

so, when i witness a numbing to pain, my heart breaks at the loss of possibility, power, and life.

and when i witness a presencing to pain, my heart fills with joy and gratitude and aliveness. paradoxical and true. all the great myths and faith traditions teach this. and yet we are conditioned otherwise. we are conditioned to numb the pain, quick-fix-it-and-not-feel-it, turn away.

i am practicing naming pain when i witness it. understanding the fears associated with being present to pain help: fear of guilt; fear of shame; fear of being perceived as too-emotional or hyper-sensitive; fear of doing more harm; fear of not being able to manage it; fear of evoking panic; fear of falling apart.

and some of the behaviors associated with these fears help me stay clear, especially around white fragility and white distancing like savior complex, minimizing, denying, competing victimization, debating data, deflecting, over-analyzing.

we cannot do the work of healing or justice or social change if we do not get radical and get at the root of what is doing the harm–the disconnection and numbing to the harm itself. what if the answer to our hurt is not to fix it or stop the hurt but to open to it. when we open to it, the response will come. and then how might we stay open?

i wonder.

this question is on my mind now, at 3:30am on day 3 of a three-day think tank i’ve been participating in with system change leaders from across the country. we’ve been brought together to design models for “understanding the impact of collaborative change”. as a group, we have only barely touched the surface of why we need to do this to begin with: our systems are broken and we are desperately in need of new ways of working (i only named this for myself just now!). we cannot seem to locate ourselves as a collective within that story and i am curious if we’ll get there in the three hours we have together, today. my belief is that without doing that then we will be unable to unleash the only power that can transform. the power-with power that comes through connection and wholeness.

(as a side note, as an evaluator, i wonder: what would it even look like to measure the impact of collaborative change in terms of capacity for being open to pain and suffering?)

i also wonder: how might we end our numbing so that we can be with our pain and in doing so, heal?

so i here i am awake, at 3:30am, pained by our numbing and the possibilities that are passing us by. and grateful for the awakening and connection and inspiration that this pain generates.

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