My favorite running buddy just got back from three weeks of bootcamp and for the fifth day in a row, we were running three miles and I was reinforcing what he had learned. Bruno is my two-year-old labrador retriever, whom I am training to be a therapy dog to help me in my work as a trauma-informed coach, yoga instructor and therapist. Because I believe the body needs to be part of any wellness and recovery and prevention program, my furry partner needs to be in good shape, and be totally focused whether we are in a busy school or running on a trail. So while we run, I am using the techniques the dog trainers taught us to correct undesirable behaviors and reinforce the good stuff.
On today’s run, as I was picking up his poop, I caught sight of a fox up ahead. This was a great opportunity to teach Bruno to stay seated and not bark, and when I was ready, to heel, and not pull me toward the now departed fox. He did great. And I started thinking about how the trainer had discussed dog psychology with me. “It’s very simple: we correct undesirable behavior and reward good behavior.” So what that looks like is if he pulls, or doesn’t come when summoned, he will hear a tone on his e-collar. If that doesn’t work, the next correction is he will feel a buzz, like the tens my chiropractor applies to my inflamed SI joint area in my lower back. In the week since he returned from the training, I have rarely had to apply the buzz. He gets it, no discussion or negotiation - he is a dog. Black-or-white. Good or bad. Period.
So I started to think about how in many ways, the way things are with humans right now has kind of devolved into a culture where if we pull a little, we are immediately buzzed (and not starting at the lower settings of the e-collar). I have seen this happening over the last several years. Four years ago, I was part of a friend group that was quite tight. We ran together, broke bread together, prayed and cried and laughed. We did not share the same views on politics and religion, our skin color varied. But we shared a faith, and the belief that love is why we are here, and we had honest conversations that in spite of our differences were able to happen because of the faith and the love thing. Until one day, one of the women sent out an email to us and others that basically said, this is how I stand on xyz issues and if you do not profess to believe the same, you are rejecting me, and we cannot be friends. End of discussion. This was disconcerting to say the least, as there was zero opportunity or offer to talk about it. I remember receiving the email and being shocked, that someone who very publicly talks about love and tolerance, essentially was saying, these concepts come with conditions, and I get to decide what those are. I was dumbfounded. I did not respond for a bit, and when I did, I said something like, can we talk? This concerns me. Her response was dismissive, as she clearly had made her mind up about me and had no desire to actually talk with me - listen to me - and perhaps have some of her assumptions about me challenged (I knew that our views were very similar, but how I chose to live them and express them was different from hers for very understandable reasons, which I think she would have understood if we had met to talk). To her, things boiled down to, you are either enthusiastically and loudly with me, or you are against me. End of story.
I work in mental health. I am currently working toward another Master’s (Clinical Mental Health Counseling) in a program that has a strong focus on social justice, which is why I chose it. My life right now is extremely busy, between my schoolwork, my part-time job as a wellness coach for a medical group, my self-care, which I take seriously and is non-negotiable, and a parenting gig that reminds me to stay humble and not take life too seriously. I love it all. In my schoolwork, I am learning all kinds of theories and skills to help me be an effective, multiculturally competent counselor. In my coaching, I apply much of what I am learning in school, as well as all of the other certifications and experience I have acquired over the decades, as I help patients back off the precipice of dis-ease by building healthy habits, hopefully for the long-term. Some of my clients are 22-year-old college students, some of them are 75-year-old great-grandmothers, some are lawyers, doctors, manual laborers. I am the bilingual coach so I get to coach the clients who prefer to speak Spanish. Some clients have gym memberships and dog walkers, while others use a walker and live in a small space with several generations. I have learned that I cannot assume that someone has food in their fridge - or cooking utensils, for that matter. I meet each person where they are, alert to my biases, aware that I do not know what I do not know, so I need to listen.
I am afraid that this desire and ability to listen has disappeared in our general culture. It alarms me and it makes me really sad. My son, a high school junior, was in a class (focused on social emotional learning) this past week where a presentation was given on microaggressions. The prompt on the screen (he is still 100% remote, since March 2020) said, “you imitate Southern or British or any other kind of accents.” If you said yes, you were accused of a microaggression. The equivalent of an e-collar buzz. Another prompt on the screen was, “your Asian classmates are really good at math.” Yes=microaggression=buzz. My son and I had a long conversation, as we talked about the fact that the delivery of this online lesson was devoid of any opportunity for discussion. There was no opportunity for him to say, my mother and grandfather are British, we love British shows, and we have fun at home breaking into British accents. There is no room for context. “Latinos are great dancers.” Microaggression. No chance to say, I am half Puerto Rican, we love dancing in our family, especially to regetón, and in my worldview, formed by my experience growing up latino, this does not feel untrue or disrespectful. As a friend said when we were talking about this, when everything is a “harm” then nothing is a harm. If I were to correct Bruno every single time he did something, he would not understand what is right or wrong, or why. So I am selective and clear about commands and what to correct and reinforce. We do this with dogs, ask any dog trainer. Are we creating a culture now where there is no room for discussion about context, or listening to where someone else is coming from, that everything outside of a certain point of view or language is a microaggression or worse?
As someone who works hard to put myself in someone else’s shoes, and who believes that most of us are truly doing the best we can, and that we cannot possibly truly know what someone else’s experience in life has been or is right now, so we really do need to as much as possible dig deep and move with grace and compassion - I am concerned by how much censorship, shaming and intolerance I see today. I have worked with veterans, active duty military, first responders and members of law enforcement for a few years. The men and women I have had the privilege of working with in my yoga classes and in behavioral health treatment centers have - every single one of them - impressed me with their sense of civic duty, their desire to help keep other human beings safe and well, and just their decency. Of course, just like the rest of us, they have made mistakes, and they have suffered greatly. They are human.
I was chatting a couple of days ago with a classmate of mine whose husband is a veteran and a police officer. She is white, grew up in very humble circumstances, in a very diverse area, and did not stop to consider people's skin color, just their shared humanity. She shared how hard it has been for her, to be in a counseling program where everywhere you turn you hear about racism and injustice and police brutality, while being married to a man who sacrificed everything for his country’s citizens and residents, no matter what color they are, and now in his job in law enforcement he gets 3am calls from black grandmothers saying they are afraid of their grandsons. Basically, he is an amazing human being doing amazing work, and she is experiencing a very stressful incongruence. She knows there are “bad cops” out there but as she pointed out, there are some really bad doctors out there but we don’t go hating on the medical profession and calling for them to be defunded. In fact, there are some truly monstruous swim and gymnastics coaches out there, but we do not seem to be throwing their colleagues as a whole under the cancel bus. My friend pointed out how when her husband returned from deployment as a Marine, he was given a month of basic recovery. Not nearly enough, of course - but better than police officers get right now. Every day they are dealing with traumatic situations (first responders too) and they end their shift, go home, get back at it the next day. So much needs to happen to support our public servants - and yet this is never mentioned in our school. Just like on social media and in our culture right now in general, there is a sense that if you hint at wanting to discuss the “blue” side, you will get zapped - because there is no room for considering context, other viewpoints, or the fact that nobody holds the market share on trauma. I can tell you from my experience working in behavioral treatment centers, that every single public servant I worked with had layers of trauma, usually stemming from childhood. I don't think I have ever heard this point made anywhere, including in the multiple "community conversations" at school regarding social justice issues. Brene Brown often talks about the danger in dehumanizing people(s) and yet that is exactly what is going on - often by the very people who complain about dehumanization. (If you feel like the world is going crazy, I hear you!).
So, this is something I have been grappling with for a while, especially as I consider how I can be most helpful. I think about this as I parent my high schooler and college student, as I move through my professional and school circles and roles, and as I consider how I will apply my counseling degree. I have often said to my kids, if everyone is saying or doing something, it is probably a stupid idea. At the very least, question it. Who stands to gain from it? Who loses out from it? And does it sit well with your values? Be discerning. Don’t share something without learning who benefits, and who is hurt by, the story. Investigate the facts. Most of all, be kind, and at the very least, or maybe this is the most important and hardest part - listen.
4/17/2021 04:44:25 pm
This theme of being able to talk about differences and truly listen is something I, too, highly value, Susanne. Everyone has life experience and trauma which provides context to what they believe. Thank you for sharing your stories. Very relevant to our National life.
4/17/2021 06:34:25 pm
I absolutely love and appreciate this post!
4/19/2021 10:33:58 am
The work you are doing and how you keep showing up to hold a space for the rest of us to grow and deepen is forever life changing. Thank you. This analogy of dog training and our current culture is making me think a lot!
4/19/2021 11:19:24 am
Well written, as always
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Wellness coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.