America’s Fourth Revolution

As a child, I listened endlessly to Paul Robeson’s deep and sonorous tones as he sang the Ballad for Americans, celebrating the American dream of equality, justice, and opportunity.  The American promise came as close as anything to a spiritual ideal for me.  By the time I was in high school, I was enchanted with history classes.  In college, I majored in American history and literature, and I followed that with five years of graduate study.  I’d like to share some of what I learned.

We have had not one but three revolutions in American history in the march towards greater social, economic, and political justice. Each time, the purpose has been to redress a particular injustice and to move us further on the path of an inclusive democracy.   Each revolution has completed the unfulfilled promises of the one before.  These revolutions have been hard fought; they have required sacrifice.  But believing what we do as a people—government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”—there has been no alternative, no possibility of little changes—band aids—here and there.  I believe that there is a need for a fourth revolution.

Our national history begins with the Revolution of 1776.  As Robeson sings:

In seventy-six the sky was red

Thunder rumbling over head

Bad King George couldn’t sleep in his bed

And on that stormy morn, Old Uncle Sam was born.

We were born in rebellion from monarchy and arbitrary power.  We created a democratic form of government in order to immensely broaden the base of power, and we instituted the rule of law.  By replacing powerful men with the rule of law, we guaranteed that no one could decide our fate without our consent.  The first American revolution represents one of the great achievements in world history, setting the standard for others and setting a standard that we would have to live up to, ourselves.

There were limitations, though.  Historians have long noted that the Revolution allowed the property-owning classes to establish their dominion.  The Constitution that they wrote did not include Black slaves, poor non-land owning whites, women, and a host of others.  To gain the allegiance of the Southern states, it created an Electoral College and assigned equal Senate votes to agrarian states with far smaller populations than states with urban centers..  These and many other Constitutional “deals” were set as a great wall against the rule of the “unwashed” majority.  The Revolution was a monumental  l event but there was work to be done to achieve a more robust democracy.

1860 brought the second revolution.  At its heart, it was fought to free the slaves.  Robeson intones:

Old Abe Lincoln was thin and long,

His heart was high and his faith was strong.

But he hated oppression, he hated wrong,

And he went down to his grave to free the slave.

Many historians, believe that the Revolution of 1776 could only have  been completed with the Emancipation Proclamation.  Other historians noted that the party of Lincoln also broke the monopoly on power held by the original property-owning class and quickened the economic freedom represented by free-market capitalism that has defined our economy ever since.  In doing so, the Northern Republicans wanted also to put an end to the medieval dominance of the Southern aristocracy.

Again, these were great achievements that left much to be done.  The South quickly undermined the Fourteenth Amendment and, as if by slight of hand, transformed slavery into Jim Crow.  The laws of emancipation were on the books, but not the practice.  The agrarian states still held inordinate power at a time when European immigrants began to overflow the Eastern cities, and nativist politics did its best to keep them in their place.  What’s more, the increased vigor of “free” markets led to a form of monopoly capitalism, in which the few again found a way to rule the majority.  Robber barons  like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie and bankers like Jim Fisk and Jay Gould were the new monarchs of American society.

The third revolution, catalyzed first by the Progressive moment, led by Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt, and then by the Great Depression of 1928, culminated in FDR’s New Deal.  The masses had begun to rise against the free market “profiteers,” and to demand that government serve their end, to serve the needs of workers and small farmers, and of immigrants, of Catholics and Jews, not just White, Anglo Saxon, Protestants.  If America was to be of and by the people, it could also be for the people.  That meant more and better jobs, Social Security to protect aging citizens, rules that guaranteed working men and women an equal say at the bargaining table, among many other agencies and laws to even the playing field.

Like the first two revolutions, the third left much undone: Advancing he civil rights of Black people and women, not to mention those of gay and lesbian people, whose time would come sixty years later, and the right to health care for the old and the poor.  In many ways, the third revolution only realized its promise during the age of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Johnson.  The period of the 1960’s and 1970’s could easily be considered a fourth revolution, with the sustained reform efforts of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society and the War on Poverty ushering in a hybrid form of government that combined social welfare with free market incentives.  For most of a century, the United States became the most prosperous nation the world had ever known.

Still, much needed and needs to be done.  There are many millions of Americans still in need of civil rights and economic access: people of color in particular but also poor and disenfranchised White people; everyone who is down and out or, like many home owners and college students, one step from foreclosure or dropping out.

What’s more, the freedoms wrought by the three revolutions are in jeopardy.  Once again, a plutocracy, consisting of enormously wealthy people and corporations, and the “public servants” who do their bidding, threatens the American dream.  Nativist ideologies threaten our efforts to be one people.  The US President-elect  insists on his own security guard (army?), more reminiscent of dictatorships than democratically elected government.  New cabinet members threaten to roll back civil rights to the days of Jim Crow, to dismantle economic regulations that give working people a fair share of power and health care systems that protect the vulnerable.

Let me be more direct:  The incoming regime threatens the most basic rights and hopes that have taken three revolutions to build:  liberty, democratic governance, inclusion of all, and a safety net for the vulnerable.  It should seem clear to anyone who has followed and loved the American dream that we need a fourth (but nonviolent) revolution.

We need to abandon the timid rhetoric of reform and the inadequate solutions of the liberals.  They may now be our Tories.  We need to build an agenda and a rhetoric that speaks to and unites all who are threatened by the “conservative” and the Trump regressions and repressions.  We need to abandon the rhetoric of small tribes: Whites, Blacks, and Latinos, gay, lesbian, and “trans,” southern and northern, city and country.  We need an agenda that brings together the great, great majority of Americans to rebuild the American democracy.  We must fight the new property classes.  We must resist a Trump monarchy.  We must fight “bad King George” all over again.

I know that my rhetoric will sound naïve and idealistic to many, but so does any deeply held creed.  And I hope that I am more worked up than I need to be.  But I think not, and I do know that there is no revolution that succeeds without fighting hard and dreaming big.  Let me end by returning to The Ballad for Americans.  The chorus, America’s working people, asks: Who is this stranger and where is he going?  Robeson then responds for me and, I hope for many of you:

Our country’s strong, our country’s young,

And her greatest songs are still unsung.

From her plains and mountains we have sprung,

To keep the faith with those who went before. 

We nobodies who are anybody believe it.

We anybodies who are everybody have no doubts.

Our song of hope is here again. 

Strong as the people who made it.

For I have always believed it, and I believe it now,

And now you know who I am.

Who are you?

America! America!

Advertisements

Loving Yourself by Loving Others First

One day, a long time ago, when my friend John and I were building a house in New Hampshire, he walked into the room where I was reading.  I looked up and there he was in all his glory: work boots, blue work shirt, rolled up sleeves and big forearms, high forehead with hair on the verge of receding.  A look of perpetual determination etched into his face.  When he saw me, John smiled and I smiled back. I liked John and took a simple pleasure in the relationship, , working hour after hour, side by side, cutting those posts and beams.

I was struck by how I liked John in a simple, unqualified way, and wondered why I couldn’t like myself in just that way.  Why couldn’t I be a really good friend to myself?  And do that consistently. At that time, this seemed like an insight of the first order.  If we could like or love ourselves in the relatively uncomplicated way we like our friends,  if we could rid ourselves of some good measure of self criticism, our lives would be so much more relaxing and satisfying.  Me, being me, I immediately tried to turn the many positive feelings I had for others inward and onto myself.  The goal was to take the focus off what was wrong with me, to minimize the critical voice within, and to love myself.

I teased out qualities I liked in others that I might apply to myself.  I was curious, adventurous, fun, trustworthy, honest, authentic.  At least I thought so.  But turning those qualities inward was like trying to apply paper to ice.  They didn’t stick.  Or they didn’t penetrate.  The effort was neither believable nor soothing.  I was who I was, the same complicated, sometimes difficult guy I had always been.

That failure got me thinking, though.  Had there been ways that I’d actively improved my feelings about myself?  Sure.  The most striking effort took place when I was in the eleventh grade.  For a few years, I had had a difficult time socially.  I wasn’t shunned but I wasn’t so well liked, either.  As I pondered my dilemma, it occurred to me that people would like me better if I liked them. Not such a profound idea, I’ll grant you.  I mentioned it to my mother who thought it ridiculous. “You can’t change yourself or others,” she declared definitively.  But I had an idea.

The first thing I needed to do was to figure out what was most likeable about each potential friend—and not just superficially.  What qualities, I wondered, would they like noticed in themselves.  What part of their character might even have been unnoticed or unappreciated by other teenagers,  yet be important to them?.  Like being a kind person, a determined person, a soulful person.  My attention had to touch something deep and, maybe, partly hidden.  And it had to matter that a person like me noticed.  I was intense and determined.  The fit was as important as the character traits.  Only then might the relationship grow closer.

This approach worked in a way that trying to love myself failed.  I did grow closer to the guys on the football and basketball teams, who liked being seen as tough and kind, to the girls who liked talk with boys, not just other girls, about feelings, and to the nerds, who thought no one saw them. When our relationships revolved around these exchanges, they grew stronger.  And this is the approach that has guided my relationships ever since.

The most sustained period guided by my eleventh grade insight was the thirty odd years that I served as a therapist to individuals, couples, and families.  To create what we used to call a “therapeutic relationship,” I didn’t take the generally prescribed course of neutrality.  Instead, I aimed for loving relationships.  I knew that I needed to find a way to love even the most difficult patient if I were to be admitted to their inner sanctums, if I were to be permitted the privilege of making suggestions to them.  In a nutshell, my theory of change, went like this: connect with the best in people, then bring it out more and more into the open—and guide people on how to let those loving, enabling, strong qualities touch all the rest of who they were.

It may be clear how this approach helped my patients, but how did it help me and my desire to like myself better?  The answer is simple: It put me in touch with the best in myself.  Day after day, being a therapist required me to be deeply caring and consistently helpful.  Love and competency were linked each minute of my working day.  I would be focused on others, not on myself. Focusing on others with a desire to help placed me squarely within my values, squarely within my best professional capabilities, and squarely in relationship with people.

Let me put it another, topsy-turvy way.  I had positioned myself to succeed in my lifelong effort to make good friends with myself.  All I had to do was to work diligently at my craft.  I made friends with myself by being a good friend to others.  In that position, I felt calm much of the time. It was an almost meditative calm. I sometimes pictured myself as a Buddhist teacher.  It was also the type of calm that comes from highly concentrated attention to goals that stretched my ability.  My patients were not easily changed.  They wanted to feel better but rarely wanted to change.  To help them feel better in sustained ways, they needed to change.  And I could try, each day, to help. To do that I had to focus on them, not on me.

I am not suggesting that everyone become a therapist.  God forbid.  A world full of helpers would be beyond boring.  I am suggesting two things: first, that we can all position ourselves to love and help others in ways that also help us forget ourselves, that help us stop being self conscious and self-critical.  I have always been this way with friends. John is no exception.  My children and grandchildren also draw my positive attention.  Students, mentees and colleagues have generally elicited the same.

Here’s my second point: We live too much in a “me first,” narcissistic culture.  The basic idea is that you need to love yourself, take care of yourself, pamper yourself.  That’s as far as many cultural prescriptions go.  Some go further: If you love yourself well enough, you will be more capable of loving others.  Maybe.  But, in this narcissistic culture, I’m not sure you’ll be so inclined to love others or to put them first.  I believe that this is an unsuccessful and somewhat immoral strategy.

What’s more, the emphasis on self love, doesn’t prepare you very well for loving others. When your learning agenda focuses on self love, you only build up experience with one person.  When you learn to understand and love many others, you build up a diverse world of experience, because, like my eleventh grade friends, each requires specific insight and specific action strategies.  You build up a much greater range of loving capacity.

In short, I want to turn our culture’s approach to self love on its head.  Don’t focus on yourself.  Don’t pamper yourself.  That won’t do the trick.  The most effective approach leads through loving others.

The indescribable comfort of being (well) known

Just last week, I was telling my wife, Franny, how exciting I have become about writing.  Ideas and images fill my mind.  Words are my friends.  I hold them to me as though they are palpable. They know no bounds.  They slip into my mind when I’m driving, walking, going to sleep.  Every day feels like I’m learning more about the craft.  There’s a passion that has taken me over at an age when I expected to be cooling out.

As I talked, I noticed a familiar, sly smile on Franny’s face—prelude to a full scale roast.  “Oh,” she began, “this is nothing like when you built all those organizations, built the house in New Hampshire, wrote your books.  I’ve never seen anything like it.”  My defenses began to rise—she was making fun of me, after all—but quickly fell away, and I began to laugh with her.  My pleasure in feeling known, and being known lovingly, overwhelmed the defensiveness.

We do this for each other.  We know the characters and the narratives in each other’s lives.  We don’t have to be caught up, filled in, or taught.  We’re almost always ready for the next episode.  It’s an unspoken intimacy that the books on love don’t attend to enough, yet it offers an indescribable warmth and security.  Even couples in the midst of difficulties often find comfort in being known.

I was a couple therapist for about thirty years.  And I taught the craft to younger clinicians for twenty-five of those years.  The object was generally to help couples work out problems, regain—if possible—their lost passions—and to become better friends to one another.  Nowhere in the standard clinical curricula we assigned was there much in the way of people bearing witness to each other’s lives.  Yet, with each passing year, I have come to appreciate this simple, quiet action as one of the most powerful and enduring qualities of long relationships.

Bearing witness is not the sole possession of marriage.  Friends, siblings, and colleagues also get to know us, develop stories about us, and place current events into those stories.  The importance of siblings, generally our longest relationships, often grows over time. They share our memories; they embody the continuity of our lives.  Recently my cousin Jonny said that his life could be divided into three phases: youth, when family was closest; adulthood, when friends and colleagues took center stage, and old age, when the centrality of family re-emerged.  Now he ached for the safety of his children and grandchildren and felt almost held by those who have known him, over the decades, as pretty much the same old Jonny.

I think what he means is that his sense of security depends in good part on being recognized, known and appreciated over time.   Let me elaborate that point.  Our identity, our sense of who we are in the world, is made up of narratives we build in order to define who we are in the world.  Harvard President, Drew Gilpin Faust, puts it:  “We create ourselves out of the stories we tell about our lives, stories that impose purpose and meaning on experiences that often seem random and discontinuous. As we scrutinize our own past in the effort to explain ourselves to ourselves, we discover — or invent — consistent motivations, characteristic patterns, fundamental values, a sense of self. Fashioned out of memories, our stories become our identities.”  When people confirm these stories by action or word, they make us stronger, surer.

People don’t always share our preferred narratives, which can be disruptive and painful.  What then?  We negotiate with them until there is a tacit agreement about who we are.  “I’m a person to trust,” we might say, and with time and experience, they may believe us more or less. With each new setting that we enter and with each new stage of life we begin, the narrative must be adjusted.  Sometimes this is a relief, as when we move from an unsatisfying work situation or relationship into one with greater potential to become and to be seen as the person we want to be.

These negotiations are partly intentional but also take place below the level of consciousness.  For instance, when we meet a new person, we often tell our life story.  We don’t think of ourselves as inventing the narrative, but we do find ourselves emphasizing things we like about ourselves and de-emphasizing or excluding what we don’t.  These new encounters present opportunities to re-invent ourselves.  But only partly. The stories are largely the same.  They become filters of sorts between what’s most deeply inside—hidden or protected or barely known—and how we want to be seen.

The socio-linguist, Charlotte Linde, puts it this way “In order to exist in the social world with a comfortable sense of being a good, socially proper, and stable person, an individual needs to have a coherent, acceptable, and constantly revised life story.”    These stories are “…created, negotiated, and exchanged.”

Let’s return to the experience of bearing witness.  There may be not a more reassuring experience than when an important person in our life consistently assures us that the person we think we  are and want to be is essentially the person we really are.  For that moment, we need not even revise or negotiate.

However, and this is a big however, being known is not always comforting.  It can also be disconcerting, infuriating, even frightening when people, like spouses, relatives, and friends, “know” you in ways that you don’t want to be known.  You might want people to love your energy, but they see you as frenetic and unfocused.  You might think yourself kind but others find you ingratiating.  When key people “know” you “incorrectly,” and when you can’t convince them otherwise, through word or action, then you either enter an identity crisis—who am I—or you distance yourself from them.

Being “known” can feel like a prison. For example, when people don’t expect much of you, you often don’t produce.  When people see you as irrational, you often fall prey to that expectation.  In other words we either accommodate to expectations—how we are known—or run from them.  This is frequently the underlying cause of divorce: the need to escape debilitating or dismissive views of ourselves.  So, too, the rebellion or flight of teenagers, who want to be taken seriously and as separate people, not extensions of their parents.  Escaping the prison of being known presents the possibility of being known by others in a more positive and enabling light.

The way that we bear witness to another person’s experience can be ignorant because we haven’t taken the time to really know them; and it can be self serving.  We know them in a way that makes us feel better about ourselves.  For instance, their flaws make us feel more virtuous or superior.

But bearing witness can also be life affirming.  It is affirming when it is generous, when it seeks out the best in a friend or spouse.  It is affirming when it is capacious, that is, when you recognize who the other person is and you know that you don’t see all that the person is.  This gives them room to change and grow.  To bear witness well means opening  the prison doors and letting go of the rigid or self serving views that we hold of others.

Bearing witness generously is important through the life span but it may be most important to people in the midst of life transitions.  This is where old people, midlife travelers, and adolescents, for example, share a heightened intensity of experience.  Each of these cohorts may have been assessing their lives, very conscious of how they are seen—known—and very much needing encouragement to move confidently into the next stage of their development.  The comfort of being known by someone who really likes who you are is immeasurable.

Democracy: “A device that ensures people will be governed no better than they deserve.”

How many articles have you read insisting that we don’t really understand the poor, disenfranchised White people who voted for Donald Trump.  According to their protectors, the White guys have lost and have been belittled so much that their rage and resentment follow almost inevitably.  The primary enemy?  Not the super rich, who this angry, misogynistic cohort actually aspires to be, but the eastern elite: the professionals, the intellectuals, the more modestly rich.  That huge voting block located in Cambridge, New Haven, and New York.  Well, maybe the enemy includes people of color, because, as Arlie Hochschild records, these jonny-come-lately Americans have cut in line, taking a place in American society that they don’t deserve.

During the campaign, Trump promised his aroused base anything they might desire, whether he believed in it or not.  Long ago, H.L. Mencken advised described the Trump strategy: “If a politician found that he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.”  It wasn’t that Trump conducted surveys to discover what the people needed or wanted.  The process may have been in reverse.  It was the people “Choosing your dictators, after they’ve told you what you think it is you want to hear.”  He certainly fed them the red meat of anger, and they were buying.

And by the way, the working White guys had some help in their march to victory.  How about all those Black and Latino people who couldn’t be bothered to vote, who would rather join the whining class, claiming that voting won’t help, that the establishment isn’t interested in them, that their lives have no value to the establishment.  Never mind that people of color are rapidly becoming the majority, which could lead to their being the establishment, if only they would organize well enough. What about all those millennials who also whine: it’s just so much harder for us than for other generations.

You have to wonder if the great majority, the people, even want to govern themselves.  I wonder whether the “elite” has grown a little sentimental and unrealistic about the capacity of the majority to govern.  Again, let’s listen to Mencken: democracy, he says, stems from  “A recurrent yet incorrect suspicion that more than half the people are right more than half the time.”  But the most damning skeptic is Winston Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

It seems to me that we mouth our belief in democracy without thinking too much about what it means.  Even those—and there are many—who concede that it is a flawed system but the best we have and the best hedge against tyranny.  There have always been doubters, beginning with the Founding Fathers, who did whatever they could to limit the potential damage of untrammeled democracy.  They created balances of power.  They created the Electoral College.  And they created powerful voter restrictions—no women of Blacks need apply.  In the eyes of the Founding Fathers, there was always the threat of mob rule and the need to protect against it.

Let’s face it, democratic institutions have not always provided a barrier against either tyranny of the majority or the tyranny of dictators.  Didn’t the French Revolution lead to The Terror?  Weren’t Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini elected to their positions?  Hasn’t Donald Trump been elected?  And don’t many of us believe that, with the help of an angry citizenry, he may well move our government in an authoritarian direction? Considering his attachment to his hotels, golf courses, neckties, and military men, we may become the largest banana republic the world has ever seen.

Again Mencken enhances our understanding when he says that democracy is “Election by the incompetent many for the appointment by the corrupt few.”  I wonder if the Trump base will even raise an eyebrow to the many ways that Trump financial empire benefits from their newfound power.

Mencken tells us that “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”  It seems that Prince Donald’s proposed Cabinet of Deplorables portends just that.  Just look at this group:

  • Ben Carson, who thinks that public housing is a Communist plot, will try to dismantle as much affordable housing and neighborhood diversity as he can.
  • Betsy DeVos will do her best to destroy the very educational system that gives the people their best chance to rise above their parents
  • Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions will try to roll back civil rights to the days of the Dixiecrats.
  • Andrew Pudzer, the fast-food exec will be the first Secretary of Labor who advocates fewer jobs and lower pay for the people.
  • Scott Pruitt, the EPA nominee, will do his best to support the fossil fuel industry and get us out of treaties and policies aimed at preserving our environment.
  • Tom Price, HHS, will do his best to take health care from twenty million Americans—children included.

I began this article with some skepticism about the disenfranchised Trump voters, but it’s the “eastern elite’s” acceptance of this perspective that galls me almost as much.  Mea culpa, mea molto culpa, they intone.  Really?  I think we ought to throw the accusations back at the people.  If you don’t like what’s going on, get off your rear ends and work to change it.  Don’t just vent your anger on the establishment, organize, vote, rally.  Get the working man’s and the working women’s issues on the ballot.  And put people into office who will work your will.

I do believe that there is a good chance that the United States is inching closer to the rest of the world’s authoritarian governments.  If this election campaign is a good test, then we are taking that direction not just with the consent but with the urging of the governed, who would rather complain or vent their anger than work together towards strategic solutions for a more just and equitable future.  Unless, of course, you think the Cabinet of Deplorables will take you there.

Transformative Moments: the Puritans Had it Right

There’s a question I have been wrestling with for at least fifty years: what makes change, particularly deep and transforming change, possible.  I don’t mean learning to be more polite, for example, but learning to express heartfelt gratitude to another.  I mean learning that shifts the underpinnings, the foundations, not the surface.

You can only prepare yourself for this kind of change.  You can’t force it.  Let me tell you a story about the early Puritans that illustrates my meaning.  The Puritans came to this country in the seventeenth century in pursuit of religious freedom.  They believed that the fate of their souls was predestined—in God’s hands alone.  Nothing they could do would influence the decision.  This created tremendous tension in these industrious people, who badly wanted to achieve God’s grace through good works.  In fact, some rebelled and created what they called a Doctrine of Works, which claimed that enough charitable actions would lead you to heaven’s door.  The Doctrine of Works provided solace for some but not for the strictest among them.

That little band believed they could, at best, prepare for grace by living simple, humble, and charitable lives.  Then they could only hope and wait.  And here’s the most interesting part of their approach to grace: It only came with heartbreak—the loss of a loved one or a home being burned to the ground, undoing years of backbreaking toil.  It’s as though the shell they constructed to protect themselves from life’s harsh injuries had to be cracked in order for God to enter.  If you substitute love or strength or understanding—more modern pursuits—for God, then you’ll see what I find so compelling in the Puritans’ pursuit.  Crisis tends to precede change and make it possible.

The lifetime of preparation, the striving for simplicity and humility, might take years to perfect, and even then there would be no guarantee of grace, but, once it came, it was sudden and complete.  You were transformed, and everywhere you looked, things were brighter, clearer, more connected.  The timing and content of change were unpredictable but durable.  The element of crisis was key to the journey.

Since I began publishing the essays in my blog, I have received a good deal of kidding and concern from friends about the dark side that I’ve revealed.  I appreciate their concern but I want them also to pay attention to something I am striving for: a kind of clarity and light that only comes with the acknowledgement, even the re-experience, of heartbreak.  Like the Puritans, I believe that it is necessary to move through times of confusion and instability to change the underpinnings of my mind.

The Puritans and I are not alone.  Virtually all contemporary change theorists sing a similar tune.  Here I think of Ilya Prigogine in physics, Steven Jay Gould in evolutionary biology, Eleanor Duckworth in education, and many more.  Let me escort you on a little journey through their world.

Prigogine says that systems in disequilibrium are vulnerable to change, often precipitated by random events.  When it comes, change can be sudden, massive, and complete.  The heartbreak of the Puritan is a kind of disequilibrium.  Most of us know these moments, when we are confused, off balance and uncertain, when the way we have solved problems and coped with pain in the past no longer work.  We reach and grasp for the ways that once worked but they seem to have abandoned us.  When we cannot recover our balance or our clarity, when we will ourselves to see the crisis out, eyes open, then deep learning is possible.

We find ways to see our world that had been invisible before, and new vision leads to new action.  Where once it had been unthinkable to confront an abusive boss, you “know” that you can do it—and you do it.  Where once you felt chained to a job or a relationship, you see the way out—or the way in, towards renewal. Where once you could not see beyond the death of your husband or wife, you might see the possibility of new friendships and professional pursuits.  You see these alternatives not because you are straining to do so; they are simply present.  These are transformational moments.

Steven Jay Gould developed a similar notion, which he called punctuated equilibrium.  He argued that it is only when species wander far from their normal environment that they are likely to mutate, creating new species. This, he tells us, is the engine of evolution.  So it is with our intellectual and social lives.  When we are placed—or place ourselves—in unaccustomed, often uncomfortable environments, we adapt.  We adapt in order to survive.  In this process of adaptation, we act and understand the world differently.

Eleanor Duckworth, a pioneering educator, famously said, “To be confused is good. Glorify confusion!”  She encouraged learners to experience cognitive conflicts, even painful ones, which, she believed, led to their minds becoming more deeply engaged with problems they were trying to solve.  She was less interested in students finding the right answers than in trusting the process of exploration, then testing conclusions—new ways of seeing—in light of how well they held up in experience.

In 1995, in my attempt to help individuals, couples, and families change, I developed a theory of my own.  It seemed to me that people change when they are ready to change. Trying to change people who are not ready was like trying to push a Suma wrestler off his spot when he knows you’re coming.  But when people are ready, when they are confused, off balance, and frightened, they could be changed with a little push from behind.  The push represented a kind of emotional judo, in which the therapist makes use of the patients’ own momentum.  Instead of forcing the matter, I would often wait for a moment of readiness, then provide a very safe environment, and encourage people to come up with innovations of their own.  It worked, and I often wished that I had someone to help me in that way.

This year, I turned seventy-four, I retired from my professional life and left a very nurturing work community.  For a year or so, when people asked what I was going to do with retirement, I said that I didn’t know.  The passage was cloudy, and I couldn’t see to the other side.  I was willing to not know because I did know that uncertainty had often had such a powerful and positive impact on my life.  The results have been extraordinary.

For the last six months, my mind has been more fertile than ever, my ability to write has been unblocked, my wish to tear down barriers between myself and others has surprised me.  When I look at issues that interest me, I see them as though from the height of the highest tree.  Ask me about any given political challenge and I remember things that people have tried sixty, fifty, thirty, and ten years ago.  History feels present, a familiar landscape.  The same is true for literature and music.  I feel like I am living in an expanded world, whose full availability feels new to me.

I also feel free.  I seem to have frequent access to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow, being in the zone, being utterly absorbed in and energized by writing.   I wonder sometimes whether—or when—this will wear off.  I have no wish to flee, no wish to get back to “normal,” no wish to relax into golf, movies, vacations, and bon bons in bed..  And I’m going to milk this for as long as I can.  Then, when the next crisis comes, as it will,  I can only hope, that I’ll have the courage to work through another time of confusion and difficulty in order to celebrate  what’s on the other side.