“Interview” with Melania Trump

Note: Throughout my adult life, I have been a coach to executives, to organizations, to parents, and to children.  It’s a role that suits me.  So I thought I’d record some (imaginary) interviews with public figures who have come to me for help.  The first imaginary interview is with Melania Trump, soon after she gave her plagiarized speech at the Republican National Convention.  I want to emphasize that this interview never took place.  If, indeed, I did work with Melania Trump, I would not reveal what she said to me.  This interview is fiction.

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We begin as Melania, tall, slim, beautiful,  and self conscious, strides into my office.  As she sits on my comfortable but upright chair, I take a good look at her.  She is bold and diffident at the same time.  Right away, she wants to do the right thing, she wants to please.  I feel for her right away.  I won’t try to duplicate her Eastern European accent here, but here is how our conversation went.

MT:  Thank you so much for agreeing to see me on such short notice, Mr. Dym.  Do you still have time for me?  I can come back tomorrow if that’s better for you.

BD:  Please make yourself comfortable, Melania.  This is a perfect time.  Now…How can I help you?

  1. I’ve never done anything like this before, and I don’t think that Donald would approve. But I was so humiliated yesterday, and I don’t know what to do.

BD: What happened?

MT:  Right after I gave my convention speech, which I didn’t really want to do, some people accused me of plagiarism.  They said I copied from Michelle Obama.

BD: Is it true?

MT:  I don’t really know.  I didn’t write the speech but Donald said that I should say I did.  What I said does sound a lot like Michelle.  That woman, McIver, the one who really wrote the speech, took the blame, but that doesn’t make me feel good either.

BD: Why not?

MT: It makes me feel stupid.  Nobody thought I could write my own speech anyway. Everyone probably thinks I’m stupid, just a model, and I hate that.

BD: Is this a new feeling or one you’ve had for a while.

MT:  All my life, really, but usually it’s easy to put on a good front.

BD: So you want to figure out what to do from here?  Or just how to put your feelings to rest?

MT:  Both.  To be honest, I would apologize if I could, and I’d say tell people what I like about Donald, but he doesn’t like me speaking that way.  ….. this is confidential, right.

BD: Absolutely.  I couldn’t be your coach if I couldn’t keep a secret.

MT: Well, Donald won’t let me.  You know that, right.  He doesn’t believe in apologizing.  He thinks it makes you sound weak.  And that’s the worst for him.

BD:  And you wouldn’t defy him?

MT:  Never.  And certainly not in public.

MT:  And I’m a very proud person.  I don’t want to be humiliated again.  To tell the truth, I want to hide.  But I can’t.  I have to smile on those stages, over and over again.

BD:  Can you talk to him in private, suggest another role for yourself?

MT:  He’s the same at home.  He tells all of us all—everyone—never, never apologize.

BD:  How should you respond to mistakes or embarrassment?

MT:  We’re supposed to take the argument back to them.  Accuse them of something.  It almost doesn’t matter what.  Just get the attention off your back.  Make others pay.  I hate to say this but Donald really likes to hurt people.

BD: So why don’t you attack the people who called you out?

MT: Because that isn’t me.  I don’t like to hurt people.  And I don’t like to feel stupid.  If I admit that I didn’t even write my own speech, I’ll seem like a silly woman, that I’m just here because I’m pretty.  They’ll think I’m an ornament.

BD: Would you apologize if you felt freer?

MT:  This is confidential, right.

BD: Yes.

MT: Then, yes.  I would apologize.

BD: What effect would that have.?

MT: I think that people would think better of me.  And I think they’d feel better about Donald.

BD: Do you think he should apologize?  It was his speech writer, after all.

MT: Yes I do.  But this is his arena, not mine.  I can’t step on his toes.  I don’t want to make him angry at me.  You know what he’s like when he’s angry.  He’ll say all kinds of nasty things about me.  I’ll cry and apologize but he doesn’t let up.  He never lets up.

BD: He doesn’t hit you, does he.

MT: No, he uses words to hurt and, you know, he’s good at that.

BD:  Is this what you expected when you married Donald?

MT:  A little bit.  I knew he was proud.  I didn’t think he was so thin skinned.  This is confidential, isn’t it?

BD: Yes.  How do you think Michele would respond if you told her that you wouldn’t have copied her but that you do I identify with her.  Maybe more than you do with the showy rich people you hobnob with these days.

MT:  Oh, I think she’s a good person.  She’d accept my apology.

BD:  A little bit or very sincerely.

MT: Very sincerely.  You know, I admire Michele Obama.  If I could really speak my mind, I’d say that.  She seems like fun, and she’s very moral.  She has dignity.  I would like to be more like her.  This really is confidential.  Right.

BD: Yes, absolutely.

BD: Would you like some advice?

MT: Yes, as long as I don’t have to follow it.

BD: That’s your prerogative.  OK.  I’d suggest you do apologize to Michelle Obama, first privately to see how it goes.  If it goes well, apologize publically.  Tell them it’s because of your values and because, underneath, Donald would like this.

MT:  Even if he wouldn’t?

BD: Yes, because two things are clear: first, it’s true that people identify with his hard side, but there are lots of people on the sidelines—women especially—waiting to see if he has a soft side, and waiting to see if he respects women.  He doesn’t seem to.  If you could openly disagree with him and if he could not only take it—you know a lot of people don’t think he’s very strong; they think he’s thin skinned, defensive, frightened of criticism, which is why he lashes out so strongly.  If he could not only take it but affirm your difference, that would blow people’s minds.  It would confuse them.  It would cause people who had made up their minds to give him another look.  He would seem stronger, more open-minded, less controlling, more generous.

MT: I would love that.

BD: So next session—if you want to come—“Yes I do”—we’ll talk about a variety of ways you can save Donald from himself and become a major contributor to his success.

 

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We are fanning the flames of terror

Just before the Republican convention,  our attention shifted from police brutality—and the brutalization of policemen—back to terror.  Glued to our TV sets, we watch as bombs blast and trucks slam viciously into strolling French families.  We are horrified at the scene, filled with sympathy for the victims, enraged at the perpetrators.  We are also entertained.  It’s embarrassing but we can’t help ourselves; so we watch on like hypnotized patients in a hospital ward.  In our minds and to friends, we try to strategize.  What would we do if we had the power.  In reality, we feel helpless and we feel the need to do something.  Frustration is immense.

If we could step back, we might come to an uncomfortable truth: no matter how awful the killings, they do not come close to the numbers of deaths caused by traffic accidents, drug overdoses, and suicides, and certainly they are nothing compared to the self induced deaths due to smoking, poor diets, and substance abuse, not to mention the mass slaughter by Ebola-like pandemics.

This may be harsh but we need to ask why we pay so much attention to the terror and terror threats.  The first and foremost explanation is probably that, unconsciously, we think that we are keeping our finger in the dike.  If we stop paying attention, things could get worse.  We fear that these attacks could expand indefinitely and devastate Western civilization.  As keepers of our civilization, we need to understand what’s going on so we can demand that our leaders take proper action.

But by attending so closely, we play perfectly into the hands of terrorists.  The very purpose of terrorism is to arouse fear and panic, to disrupt lives and institutions.  Terror is meant for the living not those who are killed.  It intends to change our lives, to make us either too cautious, because we are fearful, or injudicious because we can’t help but react, no matter how lacking in strategy our actions may be.

Terrorist success depends on our frenzied reaction, and our current culture is primed to react that way.  The media, with its need to fill its twenty-four hour news cycle and to compete for viewers, feeds off of terror.  It builds frenzy with its lurid images and hyperbolic commentary.  Even the most professional journalists weigh in.  It’s their job.  I believe they do their job in spite of knowing that their  coverage aids and abets the terrorists.  They know that all of that air time builds fears and the desire for revenge.

Over the years, viewers have come to depend on the media for their adrenaline fix—and even just to fill the time.  They demand the endless coverage.  Then the demagogues—Trump, Johnson, Le Pen—feed off of the frenzy and the popular demand to do something, just something, preferably identifying the “true enemy” as a scapegoat.  The demagogues don’t really know what to do but they know they need to sound strong.  So they propose horrifying, violent, anti-democratic solutions to the terrorist problems.  To fix the threat to democracy and tolerance, the say, we must give up our democracy and tolerance.

There is, then a complex, parasitic relationship between the terrorists, the media, the populous, and the demagogues, who may be on the very of creating fascist states.  A vicious cycle has been created.  It goes something like this:

The more terrorists strike, the more the media cover it…

Which leads to increasing frenzy among masses of people…

Which provides opportunities for the demagogues…

Efforts to calm the frenzy (Obama) are seen as inadequate to the task, weak …

Observing their success is disrupting Western societies, terrorists strike again, media cover it more, people’s anxiety builds, and fertile grounds are provided for demagoguery.  The demagogues, in turn, fan the flames higher, the people call louder for a solution, the media cover their demands

And the vicious cycles keep on turning.

Who is responsible, then?  The answer is simple: All of us.  The fueling of crisis is inherent in the system, not in individual broadcasters, demagogues, and regular people.  We are all complicit.

I am aware the emphasizing the complexity of the problem has its limits as an analytical strategy.  It can let everyone off the hook.  If everyone is responsible and if the process is out of control, who will take responsibility to stop it.  And it is out of control.  You don’t even hear anyone talking sincerely about stopping it anymore, except in extreme ways like banning whole ethnic groups from your home turf.

I have no ready solution to this catastrophic relationship, but I do know a well-established principle in the theory of change: when you try one solution and it doesn’t work, then try it again or try a slightly different version of the same solution, and keep on trying in the same vein, then the solution itself becomes the problem.  The repetitive interaction of the parts creates an impasse, a massive road block.

In other words, we can’t keep trying the same old thing.  Everyone can’t keep playing the same old roles—neither the demagogues nor President Obama nor the news media.  We need to do something different.  What?  Again, let me begin with a principle in the theory of change:  if you stop one part, one component of the vicious cycle, then all of the other parts will do something different, too.

Are we trapped in our own morass?  Must we play the losing hand in the terrorists’ game?  I hope not.  I don’t know who has the courage and insight to step out of their assigned roles, but someone must, or else the vicious cycle can build into chaos or conflagration.

 

 

Managing Resistance

NOTE: I published this paper about 20 years ago for a now defunct journal in the field of organization development, but I do think it remains relevant and maybe even fresh.  I hope you enjoy it.

 

Change and resistance go together, hand in glove. Each is natural, pervasive, and universal. Resistance is neither avoidable nor bad. It is a fact of personal and organizational life. As such, it must be managed, not avoided.

Resistance is feedback and feedback is information. Poorly managed resistance, like poorly managed information about people, productivity and markets, can be costly.

Well- managed resistance permits you to execute projects and implement change efforts with a minimum of difficulty.  We have all heard the old ‘saw’: “If only my employees would follow my instructions, management wouldn’t be so difficult.” Of course, developing effective partnerships with employees is the work of management. So it is with feedback. Managing the feedback contained in resistance is critical to effective work partnerships.

Like all living systems, organizations thrive when they balance the need for stability and change. To manage it effectively, resistance must be understood as a system’s effort to regain the equilibrium that has been disrupted by change. From this perspective, resistance is feedback about those disruptions and the troubles they create for people. If you look carefully enough, you’ll see that the feedback derived from resistance points out how the relationships required to implement change are poorly aligned with each other, and with the goals of your change project. Managing resistance means using the information it provides to realign relationships in the service of achieving goals. The purpose of this paper is to teach leaders and managers how to understand, recognize, diffuse, and manage resistance through the formation of partnerships working towards common goals.

The Many Faces of Resistant Relationships

Sooner or later, no matter how carefully you plan, threats to established ways of thinking and behaving, or to the structures and groups to which people belong, call forth resistance and obstruct the straight paths of progress.

Resistance wears many faces. They include outright refusal, denial, skepticism, lethargy, incompetence, pessimism, and helplessness.  Sometime resistance is direct and intentional, as when a worker says, “I won’t do it that way because….,” and provides a cogent reason for the refusal. Sometimes it is direct and unconscious, as when workers oppose a change even though they are unsure of their own motives. Resistance can be indirect and conscious. This is true about manipulation and back room lobbying. Finally, resistance may be both indirect and unconscious. Here I’m thinking about the genuine lethargy, incompetence, and pessimism that overtake some of us when we don’t believe in what we’re doing but can’t explain why.

Resistance as Feedback

Let’s examine some of the faces of resistance to see how they provide feedback about the alignment of working relationships.

  1. Denial

Denial may be the most common and the most frustrating form of resistance. Presented with the need to change, colleagues and employees say, in effect, there is no problem, or there is no problem serious enough to get exercised about. Worse, still, they mock, as inexperienced, reactive, unskilled, or moved by hidden motive, those who push for change.

It is hard to read the meaning of denial. People deny problems when they actually don’t see them and when they do but are afraid to tackle problems. People deny problems posed by others for many reasons. These include: competitive feelings, discomfort with the authority of others, and loyalty to a third party who doesn’t want the problem-poser to succeed. Denial tends to be a passive form of resistance, whose precise meaning often remains hidden from both sides.

When denial is met with denial, when, for instance, a manager claims that it is wrong or stupid for an employee to deny the need for change, this tends to amplify the problem, setting managers and employees or colleagues against each other in a struggle over phantoms. By the time this kind of struggle transpires a few times, it begins to take on a chronic quality in which virtually any proposal for change meets resistance.

  1. Lack of Motivation

If not denial, then a lack of motivation is the most common form of resistance. Instead of directly opposing change, people don’t work hard on its behalf. The subsequent failure of the project confirms their belief that the program never should have been started in the first place.

Why, managers ask, do people lack motivation? Do they not see the value in successfully completing a project? Perhaps they feel underpaid or undervalued. Perhaps there is no career path that rewards hard work. Do they not like or trust their managers? There are, in fact, innumerable reasons why workers are not motivated. When many lack motivation, not just one individual, however, it is unreasonable to characterize them as lazy, stupid or obstinate.

The problematic relationship highlighted by an unmotivated work force may not be with a particular manager or colleague. Rather, the problem may be with upper management or with unexamined company policy. The problem may be caused by a union. Often enough, workers, wanting to respond to challenges or to improve their lot, are discouraged by unions-or placed in a dispiriting double bind by the conflicting demands and values of management and unions. The main point, then, is that comprehending the meaning presented by unmotivated people may be difficult to come by, but nonetheless understanding it is the starting point for infusing motivation back into individual colleagues or whole work forces.

  1. Incompetence

Incompetence comes from and creates similar troublesome patterns. When people fear or resist change, they often do so indirectly and largely unconsciously by not working up to even their own standards. Incompetence may be intentional-an indirect form of anger and opposition. More often, it derives from anxiety about the nature of work: will it lead in dangerous directions like pay cuts and lay offs? Will I be seen as incompetent if I try something new? This kind of anxiety interferes with one’s capacity to learn and to operate smoothly. Perfectly intelligent people, for example, freeze, when presented with unfamiliar tasks and new learning assignments.

  1. Skepticism

People are often, reasonably, skeptical about the value or direction of change projects-could lay offs, for instance, be in the wind? – and about the ability of both leaders and colleagues to bring them off. Then, too, managers are often skeptical about employee reservations, assuming petty self-interest, ignorance, or fear of trying something new. Sometimes managers are skeptical about projects, don’t confront their superiors, and project their own skepticism onto the team they manage. That is, they deny their own skepticism but see it in others. Often skepticism concerns the attitude or the inadequate resources that the larger organization brings to a change process but is directed at the nearest representative of the organization-their manager or their close colleagues.

The point I am making is that skepticism is no single, simple thing and certainly not a quality that exists only within employees who resist. It is generally embedded in organizational relationships. Take, for example, a history of union-management conflict and mistrust, or the reaction to the too-frequent introduction of the latest and greatest management ideas.

A habit of skepticism may build up between individuals and between managers and their teams. Team skepticism breeds skepticism in managers and their ability to get the job done; managerial skepticism about the skills and attitudes of employees almost invariably brings out the worst in them, thus producing a self-fulfilling prophesy. After a while, these attitudes may grow habitual. A rigid reciprocity develops. Skepticism in one immediately brings out skepticism in the other.

Skepticism often begins a familiar, escalating sequence of behaviors between colleagues and between managers and employees. Here’s how it goes. Employee skepticism is met with explanation and encouragement. This exchange may take place several times, with growing discouragement and disbelief. With time, management explanation yields to argument, then diatribes and, eventually, to threats-generally in response to increasingly indirect forms of employee opposition. Alternatively, the escalating sequence emerges into open conflict.

  1. Questioning the competence, credentials, skills or motivation of the change leaders

This is a particular and common form of skepticism, directed at leaders. Those who resist say, for example, that their leader is “wet behind the ears,” that she has never run a company this big, this complex, this technical. Consultants leading change projects are dismissed for their ignorance of a particular business, for their lack of commitment, and for their greed. They are carpetbaggers who don’t care.

In fact, most of these challenges have at least a partial basis in truth; and, within themselves, most managers and consultants share these same anxieties. If they are too nervous and ashamed to admit their own fears and limitations, these managers may respond defensively or angrily. It is not uncommon, for example, to punish or banish vocal challengers: In the name of alleged maturity, managers may simply dismiss the challenge, all the while guarding their uncomfortable secret agreement.

The troubled relationship that builds around this form of resistance tends to go underground and to be expressed indirectly. Challenge and response may begin openly on both sides, but employees fear retribution and managers fear discovery. As a result, effective collaboration built on candid conversation disappears.

  1. Pessimism

Pessimism may represent an ingrained and extreme form of skepticism. It is directed towards at least three targets: self, projects, and organizations. The upshot of each is a depressed attitude and decreased productivity.

To counteract pessimism, managers frequently find themselves explaining the importance of a project until they are blue in the face. Then they might try reassurance and motivational speeches. When these tactics fail to motivate employees – and when the manager’s own deadlines are threatened -they may try to bully. If they have the power, they may fire whomever cannot get with the program. In general, “complementary” relationships – those that polarize the way two parties respond to each other – tend to build up around pessimism.

To state the obvious, collective employee pessimism is neither characteralogical nor biochemical in its origin. It grows up around organizational failures, frequent worker layoffs, stagnant wages, constant criticism, or management pessimism-that is, in response to legitimate problems. By treating the symptoms- some people’s pessimism-instead of problems in the broader system, we help to create a frustrating and futile battle with no winners.

  1. Impatience with the change process

As change proceeds, it is often undermined by people’s impatience. They say that a project has taken too long or it should have worked already; and the absence of rapid success is said to indicate that the change is not a good one. Then the impatient people fight the change.

This is one side of the problem. Often those driving change do not provide clear timelines, perhaps because they cannot. Spurred by unrealistic hopes of their own or pressure from superiors, they pressure co-workers and employees, who, at first, believe in the schedule, then grow impatient. Change leaders may, themselves, grow impatient with the pace of change and fear that projects will not come to fruition; but, for fear of disheartening others, they keep their impatience to themselves. Then, when others complain, they may continue to say nothing. What could be a mutual expression of anxious impatience, instead, becomes a struggle between colleagues or, more frequently, between managers and employees.

This kind of struggle also grows chronic. With each new project, employees tend to express their impatience quicker. Managers reassure less and are quicker to express their frustration with their impatient workers. It is this chronicity that demonstrates so dramatically how resistance is a relationship problem.

Causes of Resistance

In the previous section, we learned to see resistance as feedback on misfiring relationships. This section will describe some of the causes of resistance. Understanding the cause is essential to building strategies to respond effectively, that is to repair the relationships that show themselves as resistance.

  1. Preserving what is presently valued

Resistance frequently represents an effort to preserve those values, traditions, techniques, and organizational structures that those who resist deem valuable and preferable to the new ideas, methods, and programs that are being introduced. Without addressing these potential losses, resistance is likely to persist. Respect for what is being lost or preservation of some aspects of a stable environment while changing others, tends to mollify this kind of resistance. If, for example, there were a way to introduce a new work method while preserving certain traditional ways of approaching the work situation, one might reduce resistance.

  1. Feeling out of control

In their natural state, systems maintain an equilibrium between change and stability. To survive, they adapt to changes in their internal and external environments. For example, organizations adapt to new personnel and new technologies, to changing market conditions, government regulations, and labor supply. Even as they change, however, systems must retain their essential character. In this effort, resistance is stability’s trusted lieutenant.

Periods of stability and change oscillate throughout the life of organizations. At times, the capacity for change will have to overcome the lethargy and opposition that builds during stable times. The adaptability represented by an initial change, however, can be followed by a period that seems out of control. When feeling out of control, people dig in their heels and resist change. At such times, organizations must try to slow the change process so people will feel secure enough to adapt. Too rapid change can distort an organization’s normal ways of doing business and push it outside its core competencies. Well-paced change provides people the opportunity to perform well, and this diffuses resistance.

  1. Threats to dignity, respect, and autonomy

At times, resistance represents an effort to maintain the dignity and autonomy of those who resist. People, for example, often experience the demand to change as a statement that they are not good enough as they are, and resist being judged, misunderstood and pushed around. People have ideas of their own when it comes to improving organizations and implementing projects. Sometimes they experience the introduction of other people’s ideas as an imposition, and experience the imposition as disrespectful or coercive. Often people feel they are doing the best they can “under the circumstances,” that their capacity to improve has been constrained, and believe that the circumstances (the organizational structure; managerial attitudes or lack of skill; the compensation system), not them, should be changed. And, often enough, those who resist change are at least partially correct.

Current management theory emphasizes empowering workers, spread- ing decision-making, and gaining “buy in” for projects before acting on them. All of these are excellent strategies to head off resistance before it gets started. But resistance often grows even with the best initial planning. When it does, it is important to return to these basic themes of dignity, respect, and autonomy, asking how people feel these vital aspects of their identify have been violated.

  1. Genuine misunderstandings

Misunderstandings often stimulate what looks like resistance, and failures to correct misunderstandings compound the problem. A manager, for instance, proposes a particular approach to product development. Believing they are following the managers instructions, his design team proceeds in a somewhat different manner. Observing this, the manager can interpret the divergence in many ways: as a misunderstanding, as non compliance, as defiance, as ineptitude. If he proceeds on any but the first, he will compound the difficulty. If, for instance, he assumes non compliance and berates the team, he is likely to encourage a control struggle. If he treats the misunderstanding as defiance, he might fire or relocate team members, building resentment that will later show itself as resistance. If he treats the misunderstanding as ineptitude and lowers his expectations for the team, he may create a self-fulfilling prophesy and contribute to the team’s poor performance.

In each of the last three instances, a poor reading of the initial misunderstanding aggravated the problem and led to a new type of resistance. This is bad enough, but often the problem won’t stop there. Poor management of control struggles, resentment, or temporarily poor performance can harden resistance. In this case, I hope its clear that resistance is not an accurate description of what is happening. A dysfunctional relationship has emerged between manager and employees. With each step, the initial problem recedes further from view, the problem worsens, and chances of resolving the misunderstanding grow more distant.

  1. Genuine conflict of interest

People resist change when they disagree with its direction or when they feel endangered by it. The problem may be as simple as a difference of opinion about a technique used at work. But the conflict may be more dramatic. People are often asked to participate in projects, for instance, that may threaten their jobs, in the worst case, or the roles that have made them feel useful. They may be asked to take on jobs whose risk seems well beyond the pay and recognition it yields. Even such apparently simple and advantageous changes as learning a new technology may threaten the workers who fear where this may lead or who, for family reasons, prefer a stable work life to new opportunities. In other words, many changes present at least an apparent conflict of interest between managers and their employees. Similarly, projects may promote the ambitions of one colleague and do little for another. When the first pushes, even slightly, the other may balk. If the different degree of investment is not acknowledged, balking may turn into opposition, and a vicious circle of pushing and resistance may develop.

There are many conflicts that are usually dormant but are hard to avoid and sometimes lead to powerful resistance. I am thinking, for example, of value conflicts between individuals and between individuals and organizations. Equally common, are the conflicting demands of work and family, work and religious observance, work and community.

  1. Struggles over power and control

From yet another perspective, resistance can be described simply as a control struggle between those who want to change and those who don’t, or between those who want to change others and the others who don’t wish to be changed. What sustains resistance is pushing from the change agent after resistance has shown itself. The more one pushes, the more the other resists. This creates a vicious circle.

When change agents consistently push their point of view, it brings out a one-sided response in those who resist. In general, most people who resist change do so ambivalently. In other words, they see both reasons for change and reasons not to change. They experience the ambivalence as an internal debate. When a person external to this debate, powerfully and relentlessly, takes up one side of the argument, it has a preemptive impact: the person who has been pushed can let go of one side of the debate-it already has a champion-and argue more vociferously for the side that resists change. This is perhaps the central dynamic of what might be called chronic resistance, a pattern of resistance that becomes a general response to the introduction of virtually all change projects, during which people’s own recognition of problems and their own motivation to change is nullified and lies dormant.

It goes without saying, that people struggling for control do not perceive themselves as sharing a common goal. From this perspective, intervention seeks to alleviate, resolve, or divert the control struggle by trying to clarify shared goals or to develop them anew.

  1. Treating opposition as non compliance

Resistance builds when those driving change fail to see it as a two-way street, an interaction. More often than not, managers treat resistance as noncompliance. In this formulation, resistance resides inside those who oppose change, and those who insist on change take little or no responsibility for the problem. They fail to reflect on how they have prepared others for change, how sensible or threatening the change is, how autocratic or inarticulate they might have been, or how pessimistic they might have been under the surface. If only the resistors would get a better attitude, they believe, all would be well.

When resistance is treated as non compliance, resistors feel demeaned, coerced, or misunderstood. There is a natural, undignified hierarchy built into the idea of non compliance. It says, “I know better than you. I even understand your (resistant) actions better than you do.” Conceived this way, resistance implies there is something wrong with those who resist. In turn, resistors will resist this judgment long after the correctness of the change is explained and even agreed to. Framing resistance as non compliance demeans those who think they oppose change for good reasons. It appears self righteous-especially when the change agent’s frustration with resistance is accompanied by anger and bullying and articulated as blame.

Treating resistance as non compliance leads almost invariably to control struggles. When employees do not believe their job is jeopardized, the struggle may open, showing itself as direct opposition or skepticism. When employees feel threatened, the control struggle will go underground, showing itself only as lethargy, incompetence, or a lack of motivation.

  1. Illegitimate authority

Authority is often assumed, not earned. And it is often thought to be a one-way relationship. Yet mutuality and reciprocal responsiveness are inherent in any successful authority relationship. When this reciprocity breaks down, when those asked to follow do not believe that the person in authority is sufficiently responsive to their needs, their meanings or their dignity, the relationship begins to break down. Then, no matter how clear a leader’s explanation of goals and expectations, people will not follow wholeheartedly. They will resist. Often enough in such cases, their resistance will directly challenge the manager’s credentials or his capacity to lead. But, just as often, if employees are afraid, they will “act out” their resistance in some of the indirect ways I have described.

  1. Problems in the larger organizational context

Often resistance encountered in a particular domain-individual, team, or business unit-can only be explained and managed by intervening in the larger system in which the encounter is located. This is a complex issue to understand, but let me offer two brief illustrations to shed some light on this dilemma.

How conflict among leaders leads to resistance among managers and employees You are a national sales director. You ask your district and regional sales managers to take a firm hand in promoting a new marketing campaign but they seem unable or unwilling to mobilize the representatives from their districts. You patiently explain the importance of the campaign, as do your managers. Still the representatives seem unmotivated. You and your managers grow insistent. Still nothing. After careful inquiry, however, you discover that the Human Resource Department has let it be known that representatives need not accept “bullying” by managers, whose excesses should be reported as harassment. It turns out that the Vice President of Human Resources and the Vice President of Sales don’t agree on management technique. Until they resolve their differences, each manager will be faced with what looks like simple, passive resistance from sales representatives.

How conflict with one’s boss leads to resistance in one’s employees You are a mid-level manager in the claims processing division of an insurance company. Your boss proposes a work redesign project that, by training everyone as generalists, dramatically reduces “handoffs,” for example from a Blue Cross to a Medicare specialist and from there to many others. You don’t agree with this reorganization but have discovered that it is futile to argue with your boss. So you say nothing and, with great ambivalence, begin to implement the work redesign. Your team, having grown comfortable in their specialized roles, doesn’t particularly like the change either and, in addition, they sense your attitude. As a result, they proceed in an extremely lackadaisical manner. You report their behavior to your boss, who pressures you to succeed. You, in turn, pressure your team, which seems increasingly resistant to you. At least you and your boss can agree on that, and that agreement on the team’s resistance is important to your standing in the company. In effect, you agree to the location of the resistance, which might as accurately be located in you or in your relation to your boss-or in the interaction of you, your boss and your team.

Qualities of Resistance

These are only some of the causes of resistance. For anyone charged with leading a real-world change project, they are probably too much to digest all at once. So let me try to simplify my description by naming the three qualities of resistance that seem to stand out from all the rest.

  1. Direct and active vs. indirect and passive

Current management theory encourages direct, challenging, 360 degree feedback. Without it, leaders are said to grow isolated. Ideas and information are lost. Organizations stagnate. The same theory applies to the management of resistance. The meanings of denial, lethargy, incompetence, and helplessness are difficult and time consuming to tease out. The more direct and active the resistance (feedback), the more readily it can be understood and handled-either through instruction or negotiation.

  1. Flexibility vs. rigidity

When first expressed, resistance is generally still flexible; the problem is still generally resolvable through open conversation. However, consistent misreading of resistance and efforts to override it by management often lead to rigidity. The more they insist on a point of view, for instance, the more others resist. The more employees resist, the more managers insist. The longer this kind of interaction persists, the more the relationship grows polarized and the more the differences grow immovable.

The opposite is also true. Were managers to change their own behavior-by acknowledging that they had explained poorly, for example, or that they hadn’t listened well to another’s objections-then resistance would likely diminish or disappear. If employees got together and decided to give their manager, whose job was threatened by their poor performance, a break, his attitude and behavior might change. When polarized, each side blames the other, but the more useful focus of attention is the relationship.

  1. Situational vs. chronic resistance

When resistance emerges because of a particular situation, it is still easy to intervene. But resistance can become chronic. Whenever some managers propose a project or a change, for example-regardless of the content of the change-their employees respond skeptically. This chronicity rarely emerges during first or second encounters but builds, incrementally, over time. Employees come to expect certain (to them) unacceptable instructions and react automatically. Managers have comparable negative expectations and pre-sent their instructions with the expectations in mind. Once this chronic situation emerges, no one can win unless the relationship pattern is identified and changed.

Resistance is out of control when it loses contact with its original cause. It might have arisen through a distrust in leadership but, by the time it is seriously addressed, looks like a difference of opinion around a marketing strategy. It might begin as a series of misunderstandings, grow into a chronic control struggle, and transform itself into a pessimistic, lethargic work force, following the firing of a popular worker. Resistance is out of control in these situations because it is so hard to effectively address the causes. In such cases, it is often necessary to trace the origin of the difficulty before you can break the hold of the resistant relationship.

Responding to Resistance: Developing and Repairing Partnerships

I believe that many of the principles of good management have been implicitly stated in my reconception of resistance and need primarily to be formalized. Here is a practical, five step approach to the management of resistance.

STEP 1:

Anticipate resistance

Assume that no matter how well planned, well prepared and articulated the change project, no matter how logical and well-conceived, there will likely be resistance, if not at first, then later. Even successful implementation leads indirectly to resistance. When people change, they get nervous. They reach a point when they are too far from their traditional way of doing business but not yet secure in the new way. At such times, often close to the completion of a project, they sometimes dig in their heals. So don’t be surprised by resistance.

Regularly scan the horizon in the manner of a sailor guarding against an unpredictable sea. Look for the many faces of resistance described above. Name it aloud. Check out with colleagues that your observations are accurate.

STEP 2:

Explore the problems for which resistance provides feedback

  • Actively explore the meaning of the resistance. Don’t try to determine the meaning by yourself, in the quiet of your mind. Instead, ask others:
  • Ask those who appear to be resisting what their idea about the problem is. Ask them why the change initiative isn’t working out. Ask what you may be doing to cause the problem. Ask questions about larger organizational goals and trends, like down sizing.
  • Ask those who seem compliant. Particularly ask those who are in between. In any group, there are “bridge” people, those who see both sides of a question. They often provide the most complete information. Later, as allies, they may help reconcile differences of opinion.
  • Ask colleagues who have a different perspective than you do.

As you inquire, keep in mind some of the causes of resistance that were explored above. In that vein, ask:

  • What conflicts of interest does it emerge from?
  • What misunderstandings?
  • What violations of legitimate authority?
  • Which partnerships are misfiring? Those with colleagues? Those with your employees? Your Boss? The organizational culture?
  • Are you drawing the circle of inquiry large enough? Sometimes, for example, the conflicting demands of work and family or work and community create resistance
  • Is the resistance active and direct – what you see is what you get – or passive and disguised, requiring you to explore further?

The better you become at exploring and articulating the reasons for resistance, the less others will persist with passive, indirect forms. The more those in conflict come to a shared idea of the meaning of resistance, the better chance they have to resolve the difficulties. In fact, the very act of mutual inquiry is the first, major step towards building a partnership capable of solving the problems that led to the resistance in the first place.

STEP 3:

Join and validate the resistance, thus empowering those who resist

In order to change a system, you must join it. Joining means to share sufficiently the values and culture of another. This makes others feel safe. If you appear safe, you can come close; and it is close we must come in order to influence another person or group.

Respectful inquiry into the meaning of resistance begins to bring us close. People are reassured when we really want to understand their experience. This process is very different than the rhetorical questioning commonly used in the face of resistance. Rhetorical questions make a point. They speak at people, not to or with them. Respectful questions aim to learn. They side-step hierarchy. They say, in effect, we are in this together, both learners. Respect, or what some call “appreciative inquiry,” is a craft that takes time to learn. But, at its core, it can be characterized by simple prompts and questions that do not have hidden agendas. Here are a few:

  • “Say more?”
  • “What do you mean?”
  • “Could you elaborate on that point?”
  • “What would that mean for our common enterprise?”
  • “Is there something I can do to improve the situation?”

Not only do these questions aim to understand those who resist, they also invite resistors to understand you. So often, resistance arises because people simply react to instructions-a holdover from childhood, no doubt. They react because they feel powerless in the face of another person’s, and particularly a boss’s, instructions. They react because the reaction, itself, momentarily at least feels like it equalizes pow-er. In the long run, reacting is ineffectual for everyone. When we invite others to question us, we invite them to take some of the initiate in solving our common problem. In taking initiative, people feel empowered. When empowered, they are much more likely to join in partnership to solve problems.

Joining does not mean jettisoning hierarchy. A manager can and should maintain his or her basic role and the essential purpose behind a change initiative. The purpose of the inquiry is to ask how have we gone wrong; and how can we accomplish our task together.

Validating resistance does not mean affirming its many indirect and passive forms. We don’t mean to encourage lethargy, denial, or incompetence. But we do want to say that beneath the manifest resistance there is important information about how and how not to mobilize people behind a project. By affirming the hidden or deeper meanings, we accomplish two things: we let people feel understood; we encourage them to be direct the next time, so that we can enter productive conversation quicker.

Here’s the paradox: to overcoming resistance, we must join it. In other words, managers must acknowledge that they are part of the resistance-not a distant but an integral part. They must own it: by empathizing with the part played by others; by seeing their own part; by understanding that their role and ours are intertwined, interdependent.

STEP 4:

Form a partnership to solve the problem addressed by the resistance

When your efforts to join the resistance are sufficiently authentic, a partnership is formed with those who resist. In Step 3, the partnership turns inward, towards understanding the difficulties within the work teams. This effort to achieve a common understanding of the problem pointed out by resistance is sometimes enough to break the problem’s hold; and the work team can get on with its business of completing the temporarily aborted project. In Step 4, you agree to join together in seeking a solution to those difficulties that don’t fall away with understanding and require new action.

STEP 5:

Problem solving

The craft of resolving all conflicts of interest, power, legitimacy, and mistrust is well beyond the scope of this paper, but let me offer a few, brief suggestions. When the problem is misunderstandings: When the problem is misunderstanding, begin simply; go back to basics:

  • clarify the project, its goals and strategies;
  • clarify the misunderstanding,
  • see if a common understanding is easily reached.

If this simple method does not succeed, it may be because feelings are still intense and trust still low. In this case, try the same process with a facilitator present. If this process does not succeed, it is likely that misunderstanding is a cover for deeper problems, like a basic conflict of interest or a mistrust of authority.

When the problem is a conflict of interest:

Genuine conflicts of interest rarely resolve with understanding alone. When, for example, reorganization threatens jobs, many will enter the reorganization process reluctantly. Conflicts of interest must be carefully negotiated-by colleagues or by managers and employees, themselves, if they basically trust each other. Otherwise, seek the help of a professional negotiator or facilitator.

When the problem is a breakdown of the authority relationship:

If negotiations fail to produce compromise solutions, you can assume one of two things: that the mistrust is strong on both sides, such that neither trusts the other to live up to his or her side of the compromise; that the dysfunctional partnership is so chronic, that they cannot even imagine solutions. In this case, you should reorganize the work group, joining different managers and employees. Or, if the work team is so valuable and immovable, engage the services of a very skillful interpersonal facilitator.

Summary

In this paper, I have described some of the many faces of resistance and proposed that they are best understood as feedback about the poor alignment of relationships. I have described how reactions like denial, skepticism, and a lack of motivation develop from a number of causes, such as misunderstandings, conflicts of interest, power struggles, and threats to dignity and autonomy, and how these experiences are compounded when change agents and those who resist do not take the time to understand one another.

Finally, I have proposed a five-step approach to resolving the relational difficulties which rest at the core of resistance. It has been my experience, and that of others who have applied this method, that an honest use of these five steps does untie many of the tangled threads that bind up organizational change processes. Surely, these steps, alone, are not the sword that slices the “Gordian Knot.” But, when used with patience and compassion, they can be the lubricant that loosens the knots of resistance and, if they do, they are well worth trying.

Confidence and freedom

In my last letter I wrote about my desire for freedom and emphasized freedom from constraints.  But as we all know, there is more than one kind of freedom: freedom from and freedom to; and the feeling of being so absorbed that you lose self-consciousness.  You are free because you have escaped all those enervating inner monologues about doing better and doing more.

A key part of absorption is the experience of confidence.  You move through an activity feeling sure of yourself, not even worrying about mistakes, just flowing the way that an athlete moves when he is in a “zone,” the way a piano player’s fingers move across the keyboard, as though they are independent of her mind.  For a moment, there is almost no intention.  It’s just happening.  You’re just happening.

For the most part, we associate this kind of confidence with youth.  They are too young, we say, to understand all that can go wrong, and we envy their innocence.  But confidence is essential to aging as well, and that’s what I want to explore today.  I have been feeling confident in the writing I have been doing.  It has come easy.  Ideas and words are flowing.  I’d like to understand how to sustain it.

Researchers seem to prefer the phrase “self esteem,” and have gone to great lengths to measure it, even to measure its developmental course.  After large, longitudinal studies, for example, Ulrich Orth, PhD tells us that “Self esteem was lowest in young adults but increased throughout adulthood, peaking at age 60, before it started to decline.”  Retirement adds an extra push towards decline.  Good health and success in life help to stem the loss, as can many individual experiences.  But generally, confidence dips in step with aging.  As anyone observing very old people knows, anxiety comes increasingly into the forefront.

Being seventy four years old, and knowing that my health and strength will inevitably continue their downward course, I am particularly eager to remain confident anyway.  I keep asking myself: can health and confidence be separated?  I know that there are limits to how much I can control about my health.  The question is: can I build the discipline to focus on what I can control and on what makes me confident.

Paul Baltes, a developmental psychologist, had some very good ideas about this.  When describing his SOC model, he began with a story about the great concert pianist, Arthur Rubenstein.  Rubenstein had just given a performance to thunderous applause.  A young man approached him with a question: how do you keep playing so well at eighty six?  Rubenstein smiled, sat down carefully, and explained.  “First of all,” he said, “I have narrowed my repertoire a great deal.”  That’s what Baltus calls Selection.  You choose what you can and want to do well and eliminate what you can’t.  “Second,” Rubenstein continued, “I practice that small repertoire all the time.”  Baltus calls this Optimization.  You can sustain your nimbleness and effectiveness within a chosen range of activities.  “Third,” said Rubenstein, “I have tricks.  As you know, I am known for my speed and emphasis at the keyboard.  When I approach fast passages now, I slow down a great deal more than I used to.  That way, when I speed up, the difference between slow and fast is just as great, and I seem to have maintained my speed.”  That’s Compensation.

As I age, I’ll never get better with details and names.  I’ll need my grandchildren to help with my computer and my phone.  It’s unlikely that I’ll develop a flair for dancing or a keen understanding of quantum physics.  All of those arenas make me feel like an idiot and, unless I can laugh about them, sap my confidence.

What, then, is my comfort zone, arenas that build my confidence?  Most of all, I do feel that I see the big picture and the long view.  This is common enough for older people.  If you are sharp, you may have noticed that I have been writing blog posts lately.  They are flowing from my mind, something like the way that Rubenstein’s fingers still flow across the keyboard.  The ease is surprising and wonderful.  And like Rubenstein, I have some ideas about why this is happening.

First, many specific topics fit into a pretty extensive base of knowledge.  I’m an old guy.  I’ve been reading and listening and thinking for decades.  I have accumulated all sorts of ideas about how things work and what motivates people.  There are streams of ideas, impressions, stories floating around my brain, and new ideas fit within the streams.  These streams are waiting to be tapped.  I don’t have to search too far for what an event in the news means to me.  The whole process is so fluid, so automatic that ideas to write about virtually form themselves.  As a result, I have such a good feeling of freedom and confidence when I am at my (computer) keyboard.

And I trust the ideas.  They just feel right.  I also trust them because they don’t have to be exactly “right” or “the best.”  They are mine and that’s enough.  You can’t grow old without becoming at least a little eccentric, and I’m comfortable with that.  That, too, feels liberating.

So let’s return to Baltes.  I have selected an activity, writing, that I’ve been doing for more than fifty years.  I’ve chosen a form of writing—brief essays—that is much easier than the complex essays and books I once wrote.  Like Arthur Rubenstein, if a tad less successfully, I am learning and practicing my craft with discipline. That’s optimization.  I’m not sure what tricks I am using but one may be that I’ve been writing in the spoken voice.  It’s like talking to a friend—or writing a letter to a friend.  A letter on aging.  I don’t have to pretend to be setting the standard for a professional field.  I’m just talking.  That’s compensation.

As I write or talk to friends about my new toy, the blog, I do feel good, even confident.  My hope is that you, too, will look into your own activities, then, in your own way, follow Arthur Rubenstein’s example.  Let me know if it makes you feel more confident and, with confidence, free.

Time and Aging

Dear Yolanda,

You had asked how retirement was going and how I’m spending my time.  An even more pertinent question might have been: how are you dealing with time.  Well, it’s confusing.  It seems to be moving very quickly.  My memory seems to pass through decades instead of weeks.  It’s slow, too.  The day doesn’t move along through well-ordered meetings and projects.  It ambles.  These experiences of time are  both welcome and disorienting.

Take this morning.  It was 10:23 and I had been up since 6:00.  I had read the newspapers and some magazine articles, written in my journal, gotten up to date on my emails, and was preparing for a walk.  “But,” I thought, “maybe I should do a little more with my blog before walking.  Maybe I should prepare for this afternoon’s Board of Director’s meeting.  How come I’ve done so little in four and a half hours?”  Crazy, right?  I was worried that there wouldn’t be enough hours in the day to do all that I wanted to do.  I was racing.  I was still on work time, where I had to fit in my private pleasures between the demands of my job.

It isn’t quite vacation time, either.  In fact, when I left for my recent vacation in France and Spain, I couldn’t figure out what that meant.  What’s a vacation when I’m retired?  Vacation from what?  Vacations used to be extended versions of the private pleasures fit between work demands.  Was I on permanent vacation?  Should I just be relaxing?  Should I now figure out new ways to order my life?

During all the years that my children lived at home (about 27), I had spent a great deal of time with them.  I loved that time and feel very grateful for the opportunity.  But it’s also true that, for years, I worried that I wasn’t putting in the time at work that others did, and that my professional ambitions would suffer.  When the kids leave for college, I promised myself, I’d work as much as I want.  And I did.  I filled the hours I’d spent with them on the work I did to support the family and added things like writing and pro bono activities.

Don’t get the wrong impression.  I wasn’t a workaholic.  I always spent time in the mornings meditating and writing in my journal even before I greeted the children on my big, beige easy chair.  I rewarded myself for a good morning’s work with a mid-day run or game of tennis.  And I spent most evenings with family and friends.  But to include all of these good things, I had to schedule myself tightly.  I got used to moving from activity to activity to activity.

That isn’t necessary anymore, but it feels like it is.  My internal clock still sets off signals every hour or so.

I’m probably over-simplifying.  That internal clock was mostly built before I began to work and have children.  My parents were up and about by 6:00 at the latest.  They were both efficient, moving from one task to another.  They never lectured us about using time well.  There was no Ben Franklin-like invocation of “time is money.”  The pressure was in the model they set, in the looks they would give us when we seemed lazy, and in the sarcasm they offered up if ever we complained about too much to do.

There is no doubt in my mind that one of the greatest challenges of retirement is to turn that old clock off.

It’s hard though.  I’m fighting not just force of habit but some sense that I haven’t achieved enough in my lifetime—maybe there’s more I can do.

I’m fighting the abyss, too: the feeling that any day now may be the last.  I don’t have the “bucket list” that other people talk about.  What would I like to do in the remaining years.  Where would I travel.  What hobbies, long put off, would I take up.  True or not, I feel that I’ve done most of what I’ve wanted to do in my life.  But I am vividly aware that there will be an end, and I would like to make these years rich with experience.

If I had my druthers, I’d live in Buddhist time: the present.  Time would slow down.  As one disciple said of his Zen Master, when he eats an apple, he eats an apple.  In other words, he is so focused, so lacking in distractions, that time concentrates into the moment.  There is only the moment.  And by living so completely in the moment, away from scheduled activities, time also expands.  The present is all time.  And if the present is all, death is nothing to worry about.

That’s a wonderful idea and, for decades I’ve dreamed of achieving that state but I know now that it’s not going to happen for me, at least not completely.  Still, I am determined to turn off the clock as much as possible, to experience the freedom of these long, long days.  I remember summertime as a child.  The days seemed endless.  We played baseball and basketball and tag.  We swam.  We played card games.  Yet there always seemed like there was more time.  I’d like to relax into that.

Singling Out Israel

I recently read an article in Salon about divestment in companies that do business with Israel, especially companies that have direct dealings with the Settlements (“We have a right to engage in non-violent action: Christian leaders refuse to be silenced in struggle for Palestinian rights,” July 4, 2016).  I share the author’s admiration for people who protest human rights abuse.  I admire those who stand up to bullies, as they suggest that Andrew Cuomo, who opposes the boycotting of Israeli companies, may be.  And I stand with the author against Israel’s oppressive behavior towards Palestinians.

According to the Reverend David Gaewski, head of the United Churches of Christ, “… we have a right to engage in non-violent action to bring about change, including using economic leverage. All people and organizations have that right, and it is a right we must defend.” So far so good.  Then Gaewski demands that Cuomo “stop denying our rights. Rescind your executive order now!” The article’s author, David Polumbo-Liu, then adds the Babtists, Methodists, and UUA’s to his list of righteous protestors.

Here is the essence of his argument:  “The act of refusing to be complicit with injustice, of breaking one’s ties to an oppressive regime, is what these religious organizations, and people of faith, are undertaking.  And they are part of a much larger coalition of intellectuals, artists, writers, activists, trade unions, and organizations worldwide, appalled by the unfettered violence of the Occupation.”

I support the right to protest, but I would be far happier if we spread the blame, worldwide.  I am not happy to see Israel singled out when abuse is so widespread.

Here’s a deal: let’s boycott companies from or that profit in China.  Their human rights record isn’t so good.  How about Russia, who, under Putin, has returned the Asian Bear to its good old ways.  Let’s boycott companies that profit in Venezuela and Argentina, which hasn’t exactly come clean about the thousands of “disappeared.”  Let’s not be stingy with our outrage.  What about Zimbabwe, and the many African dictatorships, some of whom have been waging genocidal wars.  Then there are all those Middle Eastern countries whose people seemed to breaking free during the “Arab Spring” but rapidly reverted to tyrannical regimes or to brutal, clannish warfare.

Even these lists aren’t fair unless we include the United States of America.  For 150 years we have undermined South American countries whose political ideologies did not fit with our own or who threatened  American corporations, like American  Fruit and  Coca Cola.  We sell more arms, wreaking more destruction than any nation on earth.  We use drones to assassinate “enemies,” a practice clearly at odds with the Geneva Conventions on human rights.  Not to mention the “collateral damage” that arises when we send missiles into crowds.  We attacked Iraq based on false, trumped up information and killed many thousands during our ballyhooed days of “shock and awe.”  How about the Vietnam War, where we bombed and burned millions of civilians in an ill-conceived war.  I could go on but you get the idea.  The United States, sometimes “policeman to the world,” is the furthest thing from innocent when it comes to human rights abuse.  Are we boycotting United States’ goods?

If we are to condemn human rights abuse, then we need to broaden our canvas.  We need to extend the blame outward and we need to find solutions that are broader than blaming, then punishing one, small nation.

This raises a key question: Why is it so easy for Americans and Europeans to focus on Israel?  One possible answer seems clear to me.  There is a long history of anti-Semitism in Europe, and as Donald Trump’s recent Tweet showing Hillary Clinton awash with money next to a Star of David, makes clear, anti-Semitism, fueled by KKK style White Supremacy and, perhaps, by populist animosity towards Wall Street, is alive and well in the United States.  It may simply be easy, even gratifying to fall into the deep rut in the road of blame that leads towards the Jews.  Personally, I have never focused that much on anti-Semitism.  I have often thought that people who saw it around every corner were excessive and paranoid.  But I am beginning to change my mind.

The convergence of the American Left and the religious groups noted by Polumbo-Liu signal a tendency in Western nations that frightens me.  Those who single out Israel from the long list of human rights abusers are guilty of fanning the flames of anti-Semitism.  We know that for millennia those flames do not need too much encouragement.  Israel is taken as a symbol of Jews throughout the world, who are then painted with the same brush.

A friend pointed out to me, it’s not the French who are anti-Semitic; it is the Islamic immigrants.  I don’t agree with her.  I’d say anti-Semitism is quite alive among both groups.  As it is  in Eastern Europe and beyond.  It’s not hard to understand the need for Muslims to lash out at the West.  In the Middle East, they have suffered greatly at the hands of European colonialists, almost all of whom are Christians, not Jews, who were also disempowered during those colonial centuries.

I think that Westerners now suffer from a combination of fear, born of As Queda and ISIS terrorism, and guilt.  Those of us who are thoughtful know that we have helped create the conditions of Middle Eastern unrest—much of it in the service of the fossil fuel industries.  I think that Westerners feel confused and frightened by the Middle Eastern conflagrations and threats.  They don’t know where even to stand.  Who are we more against, Syria or ISIS.  Should we trust Saudi Arabia or Egypt?  And supply them with arms?  What about the vast migrations of Middle Easterners into Europe.  They arouse compassion, pity, fear, and someone to blame, much as the Mexican migration hsserved for Americans.  I think we have so many, mixed feelings about these dispossessed that we need a straight forward emotion.  Why not direct it at Israel.

Here’s another hypothesis: Israel almost seems like home to the American religious groups.  They feel some ownership.  It is, after all, the birthplace of Christianity.  I am guessing that American Christians feel impotent and betrayed that this most Western of countries is behaving like so many other Middle Eastern nations.

Since Israel is so public, so transparent compared to other nations, and so blatant in its West Bank incursions, why not vent their outrage there.  I am coming to believe that anti-Israel protest serves as a kind of safety valve to vent and to relieve Americans and Europeans of their own confusion.  With such a long and trustworthy tradition of blaming the Jews, Israel has become a convenient target.

I want to reiterate that I despise the near apartheid quality of the Israeli state and its current leadership.  I am not defending it.  But I do worry that the attack on Israel builds and focuses many older passions that are, themselves, signs of oppression and brutality. And I am angry that the focus of international opprobrium has found such a ready target.

Introduction to my letters on aging

I’ve been thinking about aging a great deal these days.  No surprise, of course.  This month I’ll turn seventy-four.  It’s a subject that almost everyone over fifty thinks about.  Some with trepidation, some with pride, some with foreboding, others with a sense of having come a long way.

When you add death to the mix, the numbers rise exponentially.  Everyone thinks about death.  Everyone wonders what happens after death, if anything.  There are many psychologists who believe that our attitude towards death shapes our lives.  For instance, if you think about and fear death, you might live cautiously.  But another way to adapt to death’s inevitability is to become a risk take, a daredevil.  Why not?  You’re going to die anyway.  If death seems like a friend in hard times, your might court it.  And if death seems far, far away, then you might live your life a little more freely.

When you get older, death almost always becomes more defining, more front and center.  My friend David and I have meditated and contemplated together for twenty-five years.  As time went by, we found ourselves wondering and complaining about aging and dying so frequently that we gave it a name, George, and assigned a big old chair as death’s representative.  George has become both a warning and a friend to

Don’t expect morbid ruminations from me or, likely, from my friends.  Aging is the pond I live in, and my life has a great deal of variety to it, much of it very satisfying.  There’s no doubt that I am preoccupied with the gnarling of my fingers, my inability to play tennis or run four miles each day.  I loved doing those things. No doubt that I read the obituaries, feeling relieved to see a death at eighty-seven—coincidentally the age of my mother’s death—and nervous about those who die at a younger age.  But proud, too—as if, by living longer, I have accomplished something.  Just yesterday, I was exhilarated by a two hour hike up and down a mountain side in France.  I retired a few weeks ago and I’ve begun blogging, which I find as exciting as a child finds a new toy.  I’m probably just as silly when I play with or talk about it.

I’m not seeking any universal truth about aging.  People experience aging in a great variety of ways.  I resent people trying to impose their meaning onto my experience.  I’d rather they listen to my distinct experience, then share their own.

I’m not writing a self help manual.  I’ll be trying to describe and ruminate on my own experience.  I don’t believe we can make ourselves over. To some extent, we are who we are.  But I do believe that we have the power to shape our experience somewhat.  In his story about life in concentration camps, Victor Frankl puts it this way:

“The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. … Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress….Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

I’ll be writing about aging, not from the perspective of a researcher, though there was a time when I was pretty up on the research.  I’ll be a participant observer.  I’ll be noting what I see and what I experience and trying to make meaning of it.  For instance, when I walked the hills in France this month, I surprised myself.  The surprise isn’t in the act itself, but against the backdrop of my virtually giving up such walks.  So I have my experiences, my expectations—the stories I tell myself in advance—and my efforts to reconcile the two.

Let me give you an idea about what I mean.  I have an idea about what I can or should be able to do at seventy four.  Does chronological aging move in lock step with lost capacity?  Not exactly.  It is too easy to conflate age with all that ails me.  I’ve had problems before. I had problems when I was young.  I’ve not just begun to be anxious about my ability to do this or that.  I am always interpreting my actual experience—so much so that it’s hard to just observe myself in anything like an objective way.  But, that day, I could see that I could hike more than my fearful story had led me to believe.

Here is the sequence of mental activities.  First, there’s the story I have before an experience.  Second, there’s the experience that I actually have.  Third, I measure myself against these both the story and the experience.  In this case, I was pretty pleased with my climb.  Then, fourth, I had to adjust by expectations, change my story about myself.  “I shouldn’t give up so quickly,” I told myself.  “I need to try hard before accepting my limitations.”  There is so much I have to reconcile and to keep reconciling in order to be up to date with myself.  It takes a lot of work being me.  I suspect you work just as hard.

There are so many themes that take this form:  am I thinking as clearly? Do I matter to people as much, now that my children are grown and I’m not working at a productive job?  How productive should I be?  How relaxed is too relaxed?  Everyone tells me I’ve earned my relaxation but I find some work more relaxing than laying around.  To that end, I began a blog just as I was retiring.

Here’s another typical theme that gets played out all the time: what should I resign myself to?  Resignation seems negative, pessimistic.  What should I accept so that I can move on to other things?  Declining physical prowess, for instance.  Unlike resignation, acceptance, even of very hard things, like the death of a spouse, seems liberating.  There is a great, almost magnetic pull towards resignation, and there is no doubt that I have resigned myself to many physical limitations.  But it may be that resignation is a stage, a sour stage, that comes before acceptance, which is more peaceful.  Maybe I need to feel the pain of loss before I can move into the peace of acceptance.  And with acceptance, I can find new ways to feel good about life.  Probably I’ll need to keep both strategies at the ready.

My hopes

I hope you’ve got the feel of these letters and I want to suggest how we can build a relationship around them.  My intention is to tackle themes that readers can relate to—little things like making a new acquaintance or being discouraged by aches and pains, and big things like exciting discoveries or terrible losses.

I would love you to participate: either actively by writing back to me or privately in your own mind or with your own friends.  With your permission, I’ll publish what you write to me.  With luck, we’ll get a dialogue going that many of our contemporaries can identify with and connect around.