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November 2010

Wholeheartedness: connection through courage, vulnerability & authenticity

I've watched this video on Wholeheartedness by Dr. Brené Brown from TEDxHouston (last June) several times since I first saw it tweeted by John Hagel (@jhagel) yesterday morning. It is one of the most inspiring talks I've seen, making all kinds of connections about connection and disconnection and a range of other core issues I perpetutally struggle with. I'll embed the 20 minute video below, and highly recommend watching the original source, but will also share a few notes I've jotted down from her talk below.

After talking about how she resisted the insights she'd gleaned from six years of social work research involving thousands of personal stories and hundreds of in-depth interviews - because the insights were in direct opposition to the holy grail of science: control & prediction - Dr. Brown eventually became willing to lean into the discomfort of the work, and acknowledge that

vulnerability is the key to joy, creativity, belonging and love

She encountered a glaring contradiction among many of the stories:

Connection is why we're here. It's what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. ... [and yet] The one thing that keeps us out of connection is our fear that we're not worthy of connection.

She elaborates on the feeling of shame (reminding me of the 12-step slogan "we're only as sick as our secrets"):

Is there something about me, that if other people know it or see it, that I won't be worthy of connection? It's universal, we all have it ... no one wants to talk about it, and the more you don't talk about it the more you have it.

Partitioning the population into In two types of people - those who have a strong sense of worthiness and those who do not - she found an almost tautological distinction:

The people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they're worthy of love and belonging.

The people who have a strong sense of love and belonging exhibit the following characteristics:

  • courage: telling the story of who you are with your whole heart
  • compassion: being kind to themselves first and then to others
  • authentic: willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were
  • vulnerable: willing to take actions and invest themselves in relationships that may or may not work out

Those who do not believe themselves worthy of belonging also share some common characteristics:

  • we numb: "we are the most in debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history" ... but unfortunately, we cannot selectively numb only the negative emotions (e.g., shame)
  • we make everything uncertain certain: witness the growing fundamentalism we see in religion and politics ("I'm right, you're wrong, shut up")
  • we perfect: unwilling to embrace our own imperfections or those in others
  • we pretend that we do not have an effect on people

She finishes off with a prescription for wholeheartedness:

  • let ourselves be seen (deeply seen, vulnerably seen)
  • love with our whole hearts (even though there's no guarantee)
  • practice gratitude, lean into joy (vs. catastrophizing)
  • believe that I am enough

Several of these insights resonated with wisdom shared by other inspiring teachers:

  • Rumi: there's courage involved if you want to become the truth
  • David Whyte: the antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness
  • Oriah Mountain Dreamer: our job as human beings is to bring all of who we are to every moment

This last resonance, in particular, offers a measure of discomfort, as I reflect on having written about Oriah and Buber, I and Thou: Bringing All of Who I Am to Blogging several years ago, and realizing that I have not always succeeded in that goal. This was made all the more poignant earlier today, when I encountered a blog post by Alyssa Royse, in which she models uncommon courage, vulnerability and authenticity in describing her experience of - and response to - a pair of eerily similar recent and not-so-recent traumatic incidents. Perhaps my own pair of encounters with wholeheartedness shared by these women during the past two days will prompt me to practice greater vulnerability and authenticity.

Dr. Brown has written several books, and as a researcher interested in psychology and sociology - and someone who generally falls into the "unworthy of love and belonging" camp (but wants to switch sides) - I plan to delve more deeply into her research and findings.

For now, however, I'll wholeheartedly conclude with an expression of gratitude at having been exposed to this work, and while I am not ready to assert that I am enough, I am willing to write that I have written enough ... for now.

image from www.brenebrown.com
[Update: I've since read - and blogged about - Brene Brown's book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Fitting in vs. Belonging, The Costs and Benefits of Conformity. Similarly inspiring & highly recommended.]


Mobile Phones, Cigarettes, Diversions and Health

IStock_000008064559XSmall IStock_000005610647Small I recently read an article in GOOD magazine, Are Cell Phones the Cigarettes of the 21st Century?, which I initially misinterpreted. When I read the title on Twitter (@GOOD), it evoked an image of people using mobile phones instead of lighting up cigarettes during periods of boredom or high stress. It turns out the article is actually about the potential health hazards of mobile phone use, but I'm going to proceed with my aforementioned misinterpretation, as it aligns well with a few other things I've read and thought about recently.

During my four years as a smoker, one of the things I most enjoyed about smoking was that it gave me a diversion: something to do when I might otherwise have felt awkward about not having something to do. Rather than doing nothing - or worse, looking like I didn't have anything to do - I could light up a smoke, and suddenly have something to do. Actually, I'd suddenly have several things to do: get out my pack of cigarettes, extract a cigarette, pull out my matches or lighter, light the cigarette, spend several minutes smoking, and then extinguish the cigarette.

I quit smoking long ago, but the collocated references to cigarettes and cell phones in the GOOD article evoked the memory of my old diversionary tactics, and a recognition that my iPhone is my new diversion of choice. Like smoking, my iPhone offers me several things to do: I can check for new email, texts or tweets, check-in on Foursquare or other location-based social networking applications, or play [other] games when I'm in a situation where I consciously or unconsciously don't want to risk standing out by doing nothing.

I started wondering whether mobile phones might offer a sufficiently satisfying diversion in the same kinds of contexts that others might otherwise light up a cigarette, and whether that is leading to habit substitution. That is, does the increase use of mobile phones result in a reduction in smoking rates? I couldn't find a direct answer, but found some potentially relevant studies.

In a 2002 study appearing in the journal of Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, Situations and Moods Associated with Smoking in Everyday Life [PDF], David Shapiro and his colleagues found that situations positively associated with smoking included "being in a car, outdoors or on a work break; while waiting, being with friends, or being with others who are smoking; after consumption of alcohol or food; or while standing up".

image from www.retrevo.com I don't know of any study of situations and moods associated exclusively with mobile phone use in everyday life, but a 2009 Retrevo study on How Addicting is Social Media? reported the situations in which people most often tweet / text / check Facebook. The study showed that there are significant numbers of people under 35 who connect with one (or more) of these social media streams while on vacation (65%), at work (64%), driving (40%), on a date (34%) and after sex (36%). I don't know the extent to which these social media check-ins are substituting for vs. supplementing cigarette smoking, but perhaps there is some non-trivial proportion of people who fall into the former category, especially as it seems that such check-ins are increasingly socially acceptable, while the social acceptability of cigarette smoking is on the decline (at least among some populations).

I found another study reporting that the decline in teen smoking rates during the first half of this decade appears to have stalled during the second half. This stall in teen smoking rates happens at a time when the percentage of U.S. teens who have a mobile phone has risen from 45% in 2004 to 71% in 2008. Another study of teens found a "40 percent higher association between hyper-texting and trying cigarettes" (where hyper-texting is defined as spending more than 3 hours a day sending or receiving texts). So, at least for teens, the increased use of mobile phones does not appear to be correlated with a reduction of smoking, but I think it would be very interesting to study the correlations - and potential causal relationships - between smoking and texting in greater depth.

One final observation I want to make on the topic of mobile phones, cigarettes, diversions and health is the social differences between smoking and texting (or other mobile social media interactions). When I was a smoker, smoking was a very social practice: smokers would routinely share matches and/or cigarettes, and asking for a light or a cigarette often served as a conversation catalyst. The physical exchange of flame or tobacco seemed to promote social exchanges among the participants in a shared smoking session. I don't know how social smoking is today, but I suspect that the decreasing societal acceptance of smoking may actually serve to strengthen the social bonds among smokers.

The use of mobile phone, though, sometimes seems to act as more of a barrier than a bridge to social interactions with others who share our spaces. People who use mobile phones to maintain constant connection with their online networks often tune out the people around them, using their devices as portable interaction shields (as Keith Hampton and Neeti Gupta describe them in their study of Community and Social Interaction in the Wireless City).

In a recent Psychology Today article urging users to Take a Time Out from Technology, Brett Kennedy makes a connection between mobile devices and transitional objects, and warns of potential adverse health impacts:

Pediatrician and Psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicot coined the phrase "transitional object" to describe the phenomenon of infants attaching to various objects (plush toys, blankets, etc.) that serve to provide comfort as they come to terms with their own individuality while confronting the anxiety caused by separation from their primary caretaker. ... For those who struggle with separation and individuation, the transitional object becomes a hindrance to movement forward and the object becomes a liability. ... The objects of our modern affection (IPads, IPhones, Blackberries, smart phones, etc.) are used often and everywhere impacting our face-to-face time with others and distracting us from being alone with ourselves.

image from graphics8.nytimes.com There are health benefits associated with spending face-to-face time with others, and with learning to be alone with ourselves (e.g., through meditation), and despite concerns raised by others, there are also health benefits associated with online social networking. I don't know of any studies that examine the relative health benefits of online vs. offline social networking, but given the increasing attention to online vs. offline attention (and distraction), this seems like another interesting topic for further study.


Remembering Community: Fixing the Future via Community Currency at Hour Exchange Portland

Community is more like something that we're remembering than something that we're creating all over again.

I was inspired by physical therapist and sailor Stephen Becket's words at the end of a segment of David Brancaccio's upcoming special edition of PBS Now, Fixing the Future, shown on tonight's PBS Newshour. I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed the series, and how disappointed I was when Now and Bill Moyer's Journal were cancelled. I was grateful to have another glimpse, and look forward to watching the full segment online this weekend (our local PBS affiliate, KCTS, does not appear to be carrying the show).

image from www.hourexchangeportland.org The Newshour segment profiles Hour Exchange Portland, where members of the community contribute and receive services in an exchange that lies entirely outside the traditional financial / banking industry:

We believe in people.

We believe everyone has knowledge and skills that someone in the community can use. We help people find what they need and give what they can. We are neighbors helping neighbors help themselves. We are a community service exchange.

We believe no one is more valuable than you, and neither is their time more valuable. At Hour Exchange Portland everyone's time is equal, an hour for an hour. If you give an hour of your time helping someone, providing a service, then you can receive an hour of someone else's time who provides a service you need. Time is what our members exchange. We are a community currency based on time. We believe all people are created equal, and so is our time. Our time is priceless.

I won't say too much more about the segment, but will include a another one of my favorite excerpts - and embed the 7-minute video - below. The entire hour-long version of Fixing the Future can be found online or seen on many PBS stations this week (at least, outside of Seattle).

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Are you connecting with other people? Are you meeting other people through this?

JENNIFER LUNDEN: This is like the new kind of community. In this country, we have lost a lot of the sense of community, and people are so focused on just surviving economically or doing better than their neighbors economically. We're so focused on stuff, that we have completely lost our sense of community. And Hour Exchange is a way that I have a built-in community. There are about 600 members that I can go to and ask for help.

...

STEPHEN BECKETT: We just have this arbitrary economic system that we all have -- you know, have grown up in and believe in and contribute to and work in. If it's not working anymore, then let's do something different. I think the seeds already are planted and sprouted and well on their way.

Indeed, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.