The violent saviour

He was a conference speaker with an urgent message: we must change our ways or we will die. We will only save ourselves if we do what he says, what he prescribes. 

His subject matter was climate change, but the subject didn’t matter. It was his stance: I know more than you do and if you don’t do what I say, you will die, we will all die. At one point his volume went up a notch to say:

My initial reaction was that it didn’t feel good to be yelled at. I also didn’t feel that blasting a crowd who believes what has has to say was an effective strategy to have a us listen. I chose to stay in my seat to hear what he had to say because he is wise and knowledgable; there was brilliant content in his presentation and his message. AND simultaneously I understood that his delivery was both inappropriate and ineffective. 

There was brilliant content in his presentation and his message. AND simultaneously I understood that his delivery was both inappropriate and ineffective.

A week later I realize that what bothers me most is the message that I received: that I/we need to be saved and he is my/our saviour. I experienced his stance as one of superiority; only he knows how we will be saved. I experienced his stance as one of fear, and that the harsh truth–loud and fast–is the only thing that will spark us into action. And, of course, that the action we take must be the action he wants us to take, in line with his master plan. (Yes, he used the words ‘master plan’.)

On reflection, today I see: a 74-year-old white man with a master plan will save the world. His backstory (as I imagine it): a lifetime of brilliant and unacknowledged work, and rejection from all major decision makers. He’s a rare human who can see our future better than we can, but since we can’t hear it, or don’t like to hear it, we have tuned him out for decades. So does he yell to be heard? Is this why he doesn’t even notice when the crowd before him is a few hundred people he does not have to convince? Is he so used to yelling to be heard that this is the only way he knows to talk about his work? Is it because he can no longer trust or believe that he is being heard, or that we are not the right people in power so we don’t count?

These questions and any potential answers don’t actually matter. They help me humanize him and empathize with him, but at the end of the day my experience is the same: he was insensitive and violent in the delivery of his message

A stance of superiority puts him in a place where he has the answers and the audience (me/us), being inferior, has no meaningful knowledge, information, skill or insight. While this did not add up to anything physically violent, it was mentally violent: we are not smart enough. It was emotionally violent: we don’t care enough. It was spiritually violent: we, and the work we do, is insufficient. He denies, with a stance of superiority and unwavering belief in his master plan, the sovereignty of others. 

He denies, with a stance of superiority and unwavering belief in his master plan, the sovereignty of others. 

If he wants to motivate me, this is not how to do it. 

If he wants to motivate most people, this is not how to do it. 

In the end, a good reminder for me to always check in with myself to see if I believe I am better than others. I know I “see” things others do not yet see, but what I do with that information, and how I share it, is crucial. It doesn’t mean keeping things to myself so I don’t upset anyone, and it doesn’t mean overselling people my message.

The saviour stance does not undertake this discernment because the interaction is not about the audience, it is only about the saviour playing the role of saviour.

There’s a delicate balance in this about knowing ‘where’ an audience is, what it can tolerate, and what it needs to know even if it makes them uncomfortable. (Note: when it is an imminent emergency don’t hold back.) The saviour stance does not undertake this discernment because the interaction is not about the audience, it is only about the saviour playing the role of saviour. And this is the violence of dehumanizing the people ostensibly served: it is the ego of the saviour who is served. 


Under what conditions does it make sense to put the sage on the stage? 

If we let go of needing expertise on the stage, what could happen next? 


 

Buying a car ‘with training wheels’

My two kids are great at metaphors. The latest: that they are buying a car “with training wheels”. 

They’ve been noticing their favourite vehicle out on the roads of the city for years: the Honda CR-V, circa 2000 +/-. They love the look of it; it makes them feel good. So when family friends offered a 1999 Honda CR-V to them for one dollar, they had some thinking to do. With some research, they identified the immediate repairs needed and the cost. There was research about what insurance would cost, and if it would be more economical under my insurance policy or on their own. They came up with a budget for operating costs that include insurance, registration, planned and unplanned maintenance. They researched the sale prices for other similar cars, and the shape they were in. They thought about the purpose of having a car and their budget, and where the money would come from. Then they made a decision: take on the responsibility of an awesome, well-loved Honda CR-V that they feel great about

They’ve been thinking about this, informally, for a few years, but the opportunity was in front of them and they had to make a decision. It was like the smaller version of themselves and the decision to try out a two-wheel bike, instead of the tricycle. They could have done the whole transaction on their own, but there were some training wheels: me. 

They could have done the whole transaction on their own, but there were some training wheels: me. 

Training wheels provide stability while learning a new skill. When we move from three wheels to two, those two little extra little wheels beside the rear wheel are that stability. (Even if only mental stability!) With my kids, there was a point where the training wheels came off and there was an adult hand on the seat as they figured it out more fully on their own. Then it was bike rides together, showing them the rules of the road. I offered layers of guidance, to “train” them about how the world around them works and how to fit in it safely. (Things like stop signs, stay on the right side of the road, make eye contact with car drivers, get out of the way of pedestrians.) As kids age, the nature of the guidance provided continues. 

First times are often wobbly. 

The “training wheels” my kids needed as they bought their first car showed up this way: 

  • What is the purpose of having a car? 
  • There is no pressure to make this happen now, so go at your own speed. It will happen when the time is right. 
  • What is your budget? How much do you want to spend to buy the car, on repairs, insurance? Do you have what you need to spend on the car? 
  • What is the risk of something unexpected happening to the car, or your ability to make payments? What is the likelihood of those things happening and the consequences?
  • Is this a safe thing to do, financially and physically? 
  • Does this feel right or wrong in any way? 
  • What are the steps to buy and make repairs to a car? 

With a little stability, they determined that a car was something they wanted to spend their money on. They figured out a budget. They determined that the $1 car (plus repairs) was the perfect and simple solution that meets their purposes. They researched the paperwork needed to buy and register a new car. They did most of the work, with me as training wheels on the side. 

Whether it is kids, co-workers, students, anyone for whom we serve as training wheels, this experience has taught me a few vital things about my relationship with the sovereignty of people making decisions. 

Whether it is kids, co-workers, students, anyone for whom we serve as training wheels, this experience has taught me a few vital things about my relationship with the sovereignty of people making decisions, whether they are my kids, clients, friends (or myself!):

  1. It is their decision to make, so I have to act like it is their decision to make. This involves careful discernment about what information or guidance to share, and when, to help them with their decision-making. Is the information relevant to their situation? Am I trying to push them in a direction I want them to go? 
  2. Acting like it is their decision to make means I have to ask: “Is this something you want to do on your own, or would you like my help/support in any way?” Whatever their answer, I need to respect it. After a while, I might discern that the question needs to be asked again. Again, I must respect the answer. 
  3. Acting like it is their decision to make means I offer what will stabilize them, not what will stabilize me. I need to notice if I am panicking about my kids having their own car and not let that interfere with their decision. 
  4. I need to notice when I have opinions that are not relevant. Sharing my opinion might be more about me, and what I would like them to do, rather than be helpful for them. When I offer my opinions in this way I am inserting my values into their decision making. 
  5. Supporting them to be clear on purpose helps them and me. With clarity of purpose, clear boundaries emerge about what is helpful and what is not. It enables them to put aside unhelpful advice or information. It also helps me discern what is helpful or not. 

Training wheels do not decide where the bicycle is going, or how fast it goes. They simply provide the bit of stability for the rider to make a new range of choices.

Training wheels do not decide where the bicycle is going, or how fast it goes. They simply provide the bit of stability for the rider to make a new range of choices. When my kids were learning to ride a bicycle, or buy a car, I no longer have control of where they are going. They are the decision makers. 

And most importantly, they decide if they want to use training wheels

This “training wheels” metaphor comes with great insight about respecting and allowing the sovereignty of others, whoever they are (kids, clients, partners, family, friends, or peoples). And whatever the other decides, I have a choice to make about my relationship with their sovereignty. If I want control, power over them and their decision, I will insert myself to affect the outcome. If I am not looking for power, I will offer support in ways that they determine are helpful (not how I determine are helpful). If I insert myself, even in the form of support, if it is on my terms, I am violating their sovereignty. 

If I insert myself, even in the form of support, if it is on my terms, I am violating their sovereignty. 

Violation of sovereignty takes place in clear and subtle ways. The clear ways: colonization of peoples and nations, racism, physical and emotional abuse, dictatorships. The subtle ways are in our day-to-day exchanges, and they are insidious, under the guise of being interested or helpful. (Note: The interest is not in what the decision makers want; the interest is in having something unfold the way they want it to.)

My kids, with a clear sense of purpose and budget, skillfully batted away some unwanted invasions into their sovereignty. Here are a few things said to them, and the underlying “threat to sovereignty” message: 

WHAT IS SAID THE MESSAGE 
“I think what you should do is…”  I know better than you

“An old car makes no sense for all these reasons… You should get a new car.”

I have better values than you
“Have you thought about this, about that, about this…”   You don’t know what you are doing
“I don’t think this is a good idea.”   You need my approval (or I want you to need my approval
“You should spend your money this way…”  You are not responsible

And my kids, how did they bat this stuff away? Their sovereignty did it. They recognized unhelpful information that did not align with their purpose and budget. They put it aside. 

And my kids, how did they bat this stuff away? Their sovereignty did it. 

It was fascinating to witness, and as I did my responsibility to be conscious of my motivation in a conversation became more clear. Offering unsolicited, or unwanted advice, is a primary indicator I can use to notice if I am trying to influence or control outcomes. If I am, I may be needing to feel more superior than the other, and there’s some exploration for me to do around that. None of this is about what the other needs; it has become about me and my needs, whether they are aware of this or not. 

It is also my responsibility to be conscious of the purpose of the conversation, with my kids or anyone else. It helps me keep track of my role in that conversation. Is the other asking for advice? Is the other needing me to hold space for them while they make their decision? Should I just step way back and leave them be? Do I have vital information the other does not have, and do they want it? And when it needs to be flipped around, what am I looking for from another? 

I feel like I’ve been using training wheels. My kids are helping me grow up, discerning more clearly power dynamics in decision making. They are helping me see questions to ask myself in my personal and professional lives:

  1. What does the other need of me? Advice, information, hold space, witness, distance, celebration? 
  2. What am I able to offer? Am I able to be what the other needs at this time — if not, say so. This is not personal; it is looking after self. 
  3. What do I need of the other? Advice, information, hold space, witness, distance, celebration?
  4. What is the other able to offer me? Are they able to play the role I need (they will do it, say yes or no, or be unavailable). Their response is not personal; they are looking after self.  

And the big metaphorical lesson for me, who supports people making decisions in a wide range of ways: training wheels may not be needed. If they are needed, it is the bicycle rider who decides for how long. To respect and allow their sovereignty, they make the decision, not me. Even if it means I tell them that it is their decision to make. 


NOTE #1: The exercise of sovereignty is disruptive. If I exercise it for myself, others may not like it. (They may be attached to feeling superior, giving advice, or attached to the way things were and don’t want things to change.) If I exercise sovereignty by NOT making decisions for others, that can also be tricky territory. This is how power works: it makes us want it, and it makes us not want it. 

NOTE #2: This post published with my kids’ permission. 

 

Sovereignty is necessarily disruptive

I watched two men well into their 60s get into a physical fight at the ski hill yesterday. I’d taken a break to sit in the sunshine and give my knee a moment to tell me if skiing was a good or bad thing to be doing. I watched a family of three ski up beside the chalet. The woman in her late 40s stepped out of her skis and headed into the chalet. The man (man #1) in his early 60s and a boy of fifteen then stepped out of theirs and walked into the chalet. As I watched this unfold, I had a feeling I should go and tell them that they should put their skis in the racks, rather than leave them laying about, but I chose not to say anything. I also chose to not go and move them myself. My rationale: “it’s a quiet Monday April 30 at Marmot Basin, there’s hardly anyone here, I don’t have much energy for this and what does it matter?” It mattered when a handful of people had to dodge their skis when they came upon them unexpectedly, one of them another man in his 60s.

Man #2 marched up to the skis and picked up a pair and some poles and threw them toward the racks, then another a violent swing of skis. His hands were on the last pair when I saw man #1 heading toward him with great speed. He pushed straight into man #2 with a shove, shouting, “don’t throw my skis”, and they pushed and shoved, with man #1 trying to throw punches. (It still seems stupid to me to fight with a man with a ski in his hands.) In seconds a man nearby was shouting at them to stop, soon joined by the woman now out of the chalet. After a few moments, when man #1 let go, man #2 walked away. I could hear snippets of the woman telling man #1 that his behaviour was bad, that it is important to notice the etiquette of a place and do what is expected, and how he was treating her was not ok.

Violence is not only physical, it is emotional, so do what you need to do to look after yourself, because you’re worth it. 

Now ready ski myself, I had to move by this family of origin to get my skis and ski over to my kids now waiting for me. I paused to say I saw what happened and man #1 snapped at me, so I moved on. The woman stopped me, wanting to know what I saw. I told her: man #2 threw the skis and he should not have done that. I came to say I saw you leave them in a bad place and I chose not to tell you to move them, and I should have. And your man’s reaction to the situation was both inappropriate and way out of proportion.

In a moment, I learned from her that he does not hit her, or is physically rough with her, that they have no money in their shared bank account but he has an unknown amount separately, enough to fund an impromptu trip to Mexico with a hunting buddy.

I said to her, reminding her that I am a total outsider who knows nothing about her situation other than what I just saw, this: violence is not only physical, it is emotional, so do what you need to do to look after yourself, because you’re worth it.

What I did not say to her: when you exercise your sovereignty (I like the language of sovereignty that Heather Plett uses), he is not going to like it. When you put in place the boundaries you need to be not only safe, but healthy, he is not going to like the changes to his life that come with that. He will find the new you disturbing and destructive to his sense of self and he will do everything he can to claw you back into that place that is unhealthy for you–even while telling you he loves you and supports you. In simple terms, he will do this because he won’t like that it means his world must change. In simpler terms, he won’t want to lose the benefits he enjoys with his power over you in the current arrangement.

What I did not say to her: when you exercise your sovereignty, he is not going to like it… He will find the new you disturbing and destructive to his sense of self and he will do everything he can to claw you back into that place that is unhealthy for you–even while telling you he loves you and supports you. In simple terms, he will do this because he won’t like that it means his world must change. In simpler terms, he won’t want to lose the benefits he enjoys with his power over you in the current arrangement. 

To be in relationship without the power imbalance will require two things: she has to do the emotional labour of figuring out what she needs, speaking it, and demanding what she needs when necessary, and he has to do the emotional labour of receiving it and allowing his sense of identity to shift, even be radically changed. She may choose to stay under his power, and he may choose to work hard to keep her there. They will both choose what they are capable of handling (without judgment).

This microcosm of power dynamics is playing out at much larger scales right now. People are figuring out what they need and speaking it and demanding it (#metoo, Black Lives Matter, or the Truth and Reconciliation Commission work in Canada) and those of us in power have a choice: deny and fight, to protect against threats to our sense of identity and power, or accept and welcome the changes that come with finding new ways to live together that are equitable, not skewed in favour of us.

Those of us in power have a choice: deny and fight, to protect against threats to our sense of identity and power, or accept and welcome the changes that come with finding new ways to live together that are equitable, not skewed favour of us. 

I include myself in the ‘us’ here as I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy a life of white privilege. Here’s a question I ask myself: “How does what others share about their experience threaten my sense of identity, and how does that sense of threat lead me to deny their experience so I can maintain my position of privilege”? Deep down, I have a choice about whether to fight to maintain the status quo and my place of privilege, or do the inner work that allows my sense of self to grow into understanding the conscious and unconscious ways I benefit from being white. It is from here that I am able to support others in their growth into their sovereignty without continuing to threaten or harm them.

At small and large scales, this is about how the experience of those who have experienced less power historically is allowed and invited to change the identity of those enjoying power. This is not easy work, for anyone, and it is necessary. It is a struggle about power.

There is the difficult work for the people who exercise their sovereignty—tell of their experience and what they need—and experience and withstand the backlash. There is the difficult work for people traditionally holding power now told to find a way to accommodate the rising sovereignty.

And then I think of the two white men in their 60s, enjoying a day of skiing with friends and family (a privileged life just like mine), fighting each other to protect their skis (not like me). For a moment, a part of me thought we should be supportive of men like this, men I imagine are having a hard time with the pressure to change who they’ve always thought they’ve been (i.e., it’s not ok to touch women when without consent, it’s not ok to deny the experience of People of Color, it’s not ok to deny the attempted cultural genocide of Canada’s Indigenous peoples). It was only a moment before I realized these men are stand-ins for all people who experience the benefits of power, and this pressure to no longer be who we’ve always been is not to be denied; this pressure is necessary and it needs to be experienced or we, as a whole species, will not move through it.

These men are stand-ins for all people who experience the benefits of power, and this pressure to no longer be who we’ve always been is not to be denied; this pressure is necessary and it needs to be experienced or we, as a whole species, will not move through it. 

We are all moving through a recalibration of power relating to any form of inequity (gender, race, etc.). Most often, change only happens when we are sufficiently uncomfortable. Writ large, denying ourselves discomfort is not helpful to our growth as individuals and as a species because we need that discomfort to improve ourselves. White culture, men and boys, or whoever is on the better side of a power imbalance, do not get to dodge the truth of harm because they feel ‘harmed’ by hearing about the harm they’ve caused, or ‘harmed’ by the consequences of their actions. Harm and hurt are not the same thing; when my bad behaviour is pointed out, I am not harmed, I am hurting (though I may feel harm if I have escalated my reaction to be highly defensive of my sense of self).

Telling each other what we need to tell is uncomfortable and necessary. Hearing what we don’t want to hear is uncomfortable and necessary. It hurts. We may feel—or be told—we are causing harm by doing this, but we are causing more harm by not speaking and receiving what needs to be said.

Telling each other what we need to tell them is uncomfortable and necessary. Hearing what we don’t want to hear is uncomfortable and necessary. It hurts. We may feel—or be told—we are causing harm by doing this, but we are causing more harm by not speaking and receiving what needs to be said. Exercising sovereignty is disruptive, as it should be, because it compels us to honestly look at how we relate to each other.