In the perfectly integrated, comprehensive, inclusive, and balanced universe in which most of us do not (think we) live, we can hear the mystical cheerleaders’ rhythmic, enthusiastic, and obvious response echoing around the arena: EV-ree-one! Where most of us do think we live, it can be helpful to have a sense of who our people are — not in the unhealthy us-against-the-others sense that governs most finite games, but in the sense of realistically assessing how and with whom I might do the most good in the world as it is, with what I have to offer, without harming others, to the benefit of the whole shebang. Taking care of my, or our, little niche is often the best way to serve the greater good.
Often, the answer to this question lies not in some definitive choice we make but in our authentic attention to the intersections of who we think we are, the stories we choose, the impacts we both have and receive, and what we are able to uncover and own that we previously had not seen. While “my people” may be superficially identified, or at least narrowed down, through blood, geography, and chronology, they are inevitably found and known through experience, belief, and worldview. They include those I learn from and learn with and those who learn from me — whether the learning emerges in the classroom, on the street, at the checkout counter, in the healthcare office, at work, or at the kitchen table. Consider the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, as his writing led him into “contact with more human beings”:
“I had editors — more teachers — and these were the first white people I’d ever really known on any personal level. They defied my presumptions — they were afraid neither for me nor of me. Instead they saw in my unruly curiosity and softness something that was to be treasured and harnessed.”¹
The friends we choose and who choose us in childhood and adolescence, the groups we align with when we choose a craft, profession, or area of study (or one chooses us), and the individuals in our chosen craft, profession, or discipline towards whom we gravitate may provide insight and evidence about, but don’t necessarily define, “our people.” Many folks will come, stay for a while and go; others will come and stay. We begin to recognize some who stay, and even some who go, as our people.
As tempting as it can be to espouse an all-of-us perspective and claim everyone as our people (as those mystical cheerleaders did above), if we’re operating primarily from a Body-Mind identity, it is difficult to embody and live up to that claim — despite its value and attractiveness. Better to live in a healthy embodiment of who our people truly are right now, than to delude ourselves with an espoused, but not yet embodied and lived, self-aggrandizing claim.
Still, part of our intentional practice might be to “act as if” all humans are our people and to see how such practice impacts our sense of self, our beliefs about others, and our behavior.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, (One World- Random House, 2015), 62.
In our previous three inquiries into subheaders from Chapter Eleven, “So, Now What?” we explored identity, story, and impact. Here we’ll consider what any one of us — or millions of us — might be missing with regard to our own lives and/or our country. “Shadow,” as it’s referred to throughout the book, is one reason, among others, an individual or a collective might not be seeing something.
There are various ways to work with Shadow.¹ One hint that an element of Shadow may be clamoring for our attention is if we notice a disproportionate emotional response to someone or something — especially if that response recurs. So, a recurrent, disproportionate, emotional response to someone or something we experience as being angry or lacking in compassion may be inviting us to explore our own anger or lack of compassion. Likewise, if we have such a response to someone or something we experience as exceptionally creative, generous, or successful, we may want to explore our own as-yet disowned creativity, generosity, or success.
Whether what we’re not seeing is considered positive or negative, recognizing, owning, and integrating it into our sense of self leads to a more integrated, “wholer,” fully human being.
Questions such as these may begin to uncover what might be repressed, denied, and projected:
1. What is it about this situation, person, event, issue, idea, emotion, or dream, such that I respond as I do?
2. What is it about me, such that I respond to this situation, person, event, issue, idea, emotion, or dream as I do?
3. To what extent do my reactions or responses feel disproportionate?
4. What might I be projecting onto this situation, person, event, issue, idea, emotion, or dream that I need to explore in myself?
The first question engages through an external locus of control. It helps begin to identify the source of the disproportionate response by looking toward something out there. Getting clearer about what that something is moves us closer to identifying Shadow — what we don’t yet see or know about ourselves.
The second question engages through an internal locus of control and is more challenging. It implicates us. What is it about me such that I respond as I do? Ooh, is my discomfort with his ease in expressing anger related to my unowned anger? Is my admiration for her success in the art world the result of my own as-yet-unrealized creative potential? What is it, exactly, that brings up my disproportionate response? Now, I’m curious. Repressing and projecting parts of ourselves requires energy. Owning and integrating what we repress and project frees up our energy for other aspects of life.
The third question invites us to authentically consider the extent to which our response is disproportionate to the reality of the situation, person, or thing. Honest, challenging, trusted friends may be helpful here.
The fourth question explores the quality, emotion, trait, or characteristic that may be repressed, denied, and projected. Sometimes we recognize it immediately, and perhaps experience a mix of relief, guilt, or simply, oh, THAT! Sometimes it may be slower to emerge — harder to see and even harder to own and integrate. Oh. That. Me? Lacking compassion? Nah. No way. For that one particular colleague/friend/sibling…? Um, perhaps, yes.
Working with Shadow can be discomfiting. Be kind to yourself.
Among many, see Bill Plotkin’s Wild Mind (207–34) and Soulcraft (267–80); and Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams, eds. Meeting the Shadow (65 essays from a variety of authors).
What’s my impact — what’s the nature of the wake I’m leaving as I swim, paddle, sail, or otherwise make my way along the river or across the ocean of life? How does my wake impact other vessels and the water itself, and to what extent am I aware of this impact?
What impacts me — what is the nature of the impact on me of other vessels, the wakes they leave, and the river or ocean itself? Less metaphorically, what beliefs, behaviors, habits, cultures, relationships, environments, systems, and people affect me; to what extent, large or small, do they affect me; and what, if anything, am I doing or can I do about it?
With such questions, it helps to explore the broadest, deepest view available of my current beliefs, behaviors, relationships, and environments. Shining the light of awareness on my current awareness — witnessing myself as I am — is a significant practice. What interiors and exteriors impact who and how I am? Whether, when, where, and how I choose to shine this light of awareness emerges from the story I hold (or that holds me) about who I think I am, and the worldview — focused on me, us, all of us, or all that is — that holds my story.
The world of experience continues to offer additional givens throughout our lives. The concrete manifestation of our earliest and ongoing givens are the literal infrastructures and systems — the natural and human-made environments — in which we live our lives, from the tablet, computer, or phone you’re using right now, to the physical space you’re in, to the electricity or to the sun itself that lights that space. Cultural givens and environments co-arise, co-relate, and impact each other and each of us. Beliefs and values lead to things and systems, which in turn revise and create beliefs and values — which in turn lead to new things and systems.
Intentional fire, writing, the wheel, horticulture, agriculture, gunpowder, the printing press, steam power, trains, electricity, internal combustion, the automobile, paved roads, airplanes, the assembly line, the radio, television, space travel, atomic power, computers, robotics, the World Wide Web, smart phones, social media and many other technologies shaped and shape our environment, and, in turn, they shape us. Way back in the previous century, Neal Postman proposed six questions that are worth exploring each time a new technology is being developed or emerges:
1. What is the problem to which this technology is a solution?
2. Whose problem is it?
3. Suppose we solve the problem and solve it decisively, what new problems might be created because we solved the old problem?
4. Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?
5. What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies and what is being gained and lost by such changes?
6. What sort of people and institutions acquire special economical and political power because of technological change?¹
1. How does who you think you are impact what stories you are telling yourself about the impact of the technologies you choose to use or must engage with every day?
2. How do the stories you tell yourself impact who you think you are and the technologies you choose to use or must engage with every day?
3. How do the technologies you choose to use or must engage with every day impact the stories you tell yourself about who you think you are?
The above is not an attempt at cleverness. Consider spending some time with these questions in the context of what you believe is true, first in your own life, and then in the history and current affairs of the United States. Identity, story, and impact matter.
1. Neal Postman, “Staying Sane in a Technological Society: Six Questions in Search of an Answer,” Lapis, (New York Open Center, Issue 7, 1998), 53–57.
Note your immediate response to this premise. Is it, ‘What do you mean — please explain?’ or, ‘Bullshit…?’ or ‘Du-uh, tell me something I don’t already know?’ Perhaps it’s ‘Thank you for confirming what I was beginning to see?’ Is it something else entirely? Whatever it is fine — it’s your story about the suggestion that everything is a story. Consider that if your response was in the general area of Bullshit.
The cultural givens handed down by our parents and earliest communities and experiences are stories. As (or if) we grow up, wake up, clean up, and show up, some stories hold up and some don’t. Sometimes the givens that don’t hold up were false when we received them and sometimes they were true — as far as anyone knew at the time — but the larger, always evolving community of truth learned more and disproved them when new evidence was found.¹ Doctors no longer recommend smoking cigarettes as a way to relax. Planet Earth is no longer considered the center of the universe.
The stories we choose to believe and tell, as well as the stories that choose us, are powerful. Being in the position to choose our stories and not be chosen by them carries power. Mary Catherine Bateson encourages us to exercise this power:
“…think about the creative responsibility involved in the fact that there are different ways to tell your stories. It’s not that one is true and another is not true. It’s a matter of emphasis and context…. The choice you make affects what you can do next.”²
So, let’s be thoughtful about the stories we choose to tell about who we (think we — and they) are. The choices we make and the stories we tell matter.
Consider the specific stories that inform(ed) yourcultural givens. What holds up? What’s the most recent revision you’ve made, or that was made for you, where revision actually means re-vision — to see again? Look at the sweeping revisions, many ongoing, in the earlier essays in this series, and the specific, personal revisions shared therein, such as Robert McNamara’s ‘re-visioned’ view that owned the extent to which he and the other architects of the Vietnam war misjudged, underestimated, failed, and did not recognize a long list of people and ideas.
Such seeing again is never easy and always valuable when it moves the seer toward a more comprehensive, inclusive view. Malcolm X’s life stands as an exemplar of re-visioning. Two of his major re-visions — becoming a Muslim and joining the Nation of Islam while in prison and then leaving the Nation of Islam while remaining a Muslim after his 1964 Hajj — follow the developmental trajectory from a focus on me to a focus on us to a focus on all of us. In each case he changed his name and publicly recognized and owned his seeing again.³
How we tell our stories is as important as which stories we tell. Focus only on what’s wrong and get an “illness” story. Open up to the possibilities of moving through and beyond what’s wrong and tell or write a “healing” story. Adults model both of these for children: if the child who falls down the stairs and breaks an arm is confronted with parental overwhelm, blame, anger, and fear, an illness story emerges in which stairs are dangerous and the child is careless or clumsy; if the child is met with parental support, concern, acceptance, understanding, and love, a healing story emerges in which accidents can happen, stairs are useful and fine and best engaged with care, and the child is curious and open to experience.
Illness stories limit us, narrowly focus on a sense of wrongness, keep us stuck, and can reinforce trauma; healing stories open up the context in which we understand what happened (wrongness may be relevant, but not primary), they can expand and free us, and they can contribute to trauma recovery. Because they focus on what’s wrong, illness stories are often tidy, brief, stagnant, partial, and consistent. Because they emerge through and invite increasingly larger contexts, healing stories are often messy, ongoing, progressive, comprehensive, and paradoxical. Explore your stories. Be kind to yourself.
Writing can be engaged as a powerful process⁴ that helps open us up to increasingly larger contexts that allow us to see and feel as others see and feel — to go beneath all the individual differences, see another soul just like ourselves, and at the same time deeply understand and embody those differences. Going one step further, learning to embody and tell or write someone else’s story, both helps us understand the other and often provides clarity into our own narrative.⁵
Finally, if I’m truly playing an infinite game,⁶ some questions may arise at the intersection of “who am I, really?” and “everything is a story.” Try these questions on for size: Without the stories I hold and that hold me, who am I, and what’s true in this moment? Who am I and what does this moment offer without my story/ies? Ram Dass’s channels four and five point toward a prospective answer. John Tarrant, in Bring Me the Rhinoceros, put it this way:
“Everyone knows that some events are just bad and make you sad or angry, and some are good and make you glad. Yet what everyone knows might not be true. For example there might be a certain coercion to the attitude that weddings must be happy, funerals have to be sad. It could prevent you from meeting the moment you are in. What if events don’t have to be anything other than what they are?”⁷
We owe it to ourselves and each other to create and tell our stories with care.
1. See Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth (Brookings Institution, 2021) for an expansive and passionate exploration of his book’s title and the “community of truth.”
2. Mary Catherine Bateson, “Composing a Life,” Sacred Stories: A Celebration of the Power of Stories to Transform and Heal. Eds. Charles & Anne Simpkinson, (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 42–43.
4. James Pennebaker has led the way in decades of research that back this up. See his Expressive Writing: Words that Heal, co-authored with John Evans, (2014); and Opening Up: The Healing Power of Emotions (1990), among others. See also John Fox’s Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making, (1997). There are many more resources available.
5. See Marra, Enough with the Talking Points, (2020),79–82 for more on truly embodying another’s story. For a deeper dive into telling another’s story as if it were our own, see the work of Narrative 4, which uses “story exchange” to help young (and old) people develop empathy. (Some meeting “icebreaker” exercises skim the surface of this experience: two strangers briefly share who they are and then introduce each other to a group — speaking in first-person, as if they are the person they’re introducing. Narrative 4 goes deeper): https://narrative4.com/.
6. Inspired by James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility (Free Press-MacMillan, 1986). An infinite game is one in which the goals are to invite everyone to play and to keep the game going. A finite game is one in which the goal is to limit the players, win, and end the game.
7. John Tarrant, Bring Me the Rhinoceros, (Shambhala, 2008/2004), 113.