A Hole in the World

images-4I came across Portia Nelson’s wonderful “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” recently and wanted to share it here. It encapsulates perfectly the challenging and often painstaking process of changing our most entrenched and destructive patterns of mind.


“There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk”

Chapter 1

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes me a long time to get out.

Chapter 3

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in. It’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault. I get out immediately.

Chapter 4

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter 5

I walk down another street.

Since the terrorist attacks in Paris, I’ve also been thinking it applies equally to how we collectively, as a society and political order, approach our most vexing problems — only it’s not clear we ever get past the first couple of chapters.

“I would bring back waterboarding,” declared Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on ABC News’ Sunday show, This Week with George Stephanopolous, talking about how he would respond to terrorism if he were president.  Surely Trump doesn’t think that’s the answer, given the wealth of evidence that torture undermines rather than promotes national security. But with so many fearful Americans eager to see leaders do something, anything, to ensure their safety, Trump probably figured it would grab more headlines and score him more votes.

Donald Trump is an extreme case, of course, but whether it’s global warming, income inequality or terrorism, there seems to be a general societal instinct to respond immediately to our most entrenched problems with a defensiveness that clouds our ability to see our role in the problem and how our reactions perpetuate it.

An individual wanting to change can make a commitment to approaching the situation with renewed awareness and, eventually, choose to walk down a different path. But how can we do that as a society, in a political system governed by leaders focused only on short-term gains?


Speak Up!

Woman Using MegaphoneI was reading Tara Mohr’s op-ed about how women at work are criticized more than men so need to learn to tolerate it better the day after I was chewed out by a colleague for speaking up about something I believed in. That colleague – a fellow board member on a local community organization — was another woman.

I lamented that even some women seem to have taken on the nasty habit of criticizing women more than they do men, particularly for how they express themselves. In this case, I was criticized for sending an e-mail saying I did not want to participate in a male colleague’s public criticisms of others in our community. (Privately, several other women on the board thanked me for speaking up.)

It’s a trivial example, but in other contexts, speaking up without fear of criticism can be a matter of life or death. Which makes me think Mohr and Kieran Snyder, whose study she cites, are on to something really important. Its implications reach far beyond women’s success in the workplace or community advocacy.

Take the problem of violent extremism, which has pulled the United States into war after war over the last 13 years and threatens to keep us at war for the indefinite future. At a recent conference I attended, Mossarat Qadeem, Executive Director of the Paiman Alumni Trust in Pakistan, spoke of a successful program she started to counter violent extremism in a remote part of Pakistan. It was all about educating women – first, in how to make a living, and second, in how to keep their sons from engaging in extremist violence. It’s necessary first to teach women how to make a living, she explained, because otherwise, they’d be financially dependent on their sons, as many long had been; they would therefore be powerless to speak up and influence them.

Mohr similarly explains that historically, women around the world learned not to speak up for themselves, or for what they believed was right, for fear of offending and being rejected by men, whom they depended upon financially. While that’s less true in the United States today than it was in the past, it’s still very true around the world.

Nicholas Kristof makes a related point in his New York Times column on Thursday, where he argues that instead of spending so many billions of dollars killing extremists around the world, the U.S. government ought to invest more in educating the women who live with them. Groups like the Islamic State have intentionally kept women ignorant, illiterate and oppressed to create “a petri dish in which extremism can fluourish,” writes Kristof. As in the remote tribal areas of Pakistan, education equals empowerment equals influence, and in the long run will be far more effective in preventing terrorism than will guns and bombs.

I’m not saying the United States never has to use its military to fight terrorism or that educating women and girls will solve everything; but it’s a far less costly, more humane and potentially long-lasting solution to many of the most entrenched problems we’re seeing around the world today. (On a related note, American women tend to be far more concerned about global warming than men; according to a 2014 Gallup survey, 60 of “concerned believers” are women, while two-thirds of global warming skeptics are men. An entire world of educated women could make a world of difference.)

Which brings me back to my community group, and Snyder’s study. Even those of us with the privilege of being highly educated and interacting with equally educated men have work to do when it comes to making sure our views are heard. Those views may sometimes elicit praise, but they’ll often elicit criticism, which, as Mohr notes, we’ll just have to get used to.

“Women today inhabit a transitional historical moment,” says Mohr. “We have tremendous new freedoms and new opportunities, but the legacy of a very different past is around us and inside us.”

That means we all have important choices to make about how we use those freedoms — and support them for others — as we move into the future.