My kids make me want to be a better person. I want them to see me try new things so they will feel capable of trying new things, too. When I was a kid, I was shy and so scared of making a mistake in public that it kept me from being open to new experiences. I’ve spent my adult life coming out of my shell, and finding the courage to make mistakes. I’m in a school that helps me be brave and take emotional risks. The school is called the Radical Aliveness Institute, and it feels like an antidote to the “Koolaid” I drank growing up.
In my Complexity class at the Radical Aliveness Institute, we learn about the nature of reality and human diversity. It’s at the edge of chaos that evolution happens – in the natural world, in computing, and in human relationships. People tend to be most comfortable around folks who look and think the same way they do. I was brought up in a Born Again Christian community. Like with all fundamentalist groups, as children we were taught that there’s a right way to be and only one right way. The right way was our way, and all the other ways are wrong – leading straight to eternal damnation. Read the Holy Rule Book and you will know how to act and think and be. I loved that! It’s so comforting to believe that there’s a right way and that I know what it is!
I’ve changed and grown a lot over the years. My high school English teachers and my friends slowly opened my mind to a much wider world. In university, I began to feel very connected to the social justice movement. I was in the small female minority at the engineering school and that fueled my passion for women’s equality. Sometimes the engineering department felt like a throwback to the 1950s. Even though I had only one female professor (a Ph.D once called “Miss” by a classmate!), and some of the older profs refused to take on female grad students, I still loved studying a profession in which you could find the right answer to a problem.
That need to be right stifled my openness and put limits on my acceptance of others. At the time I may have thought that I’d lost my religion and was now tolerant and open minded. Looking back, even my social justice work had the fervent quality of religious self-righteousness. I remember the thrill of humiliating a classmate when I caught him mocking the Asian accent of our Physics prof. At the time I thought his crime deserved public evisceration. I had an inner police officer who was all rules and no heart.
It wasn’t until my rightness began to feel like a small and relentless trap that I started to look for a new way of thinking. The pressure I put on myself to be perfect began to break me. I went into therapy – private sessions and group sessions – and I began to be more messy, more real, and more gentle with myself and others. My process group experience led me to the school for Radical Aliveness. I longed to be more fully human, and to share what I am learning with other people who feel trapped in old, small ways of being.
I still find it incredibly uncomfortable to be open to multiple perspectives all at once. That’s so much bigger than myself! I can’t see the whole picture – only tiny glimpses. I can’t hold it in my mind. I can’t measure the emerging higher intelligence that can appear when diversity is welcome and multiple perspectives are honored. A poem is harder to read than a story with a linear narrative structure, though a poem can touch us more deeply, as it evokes an essence that can barely be put into words.
In Complexity class, we learned that when we see someone who resembles us, we assume that they are like us. We expect that they have similar values and similar experiences. If I know myself to be trustworthy and kind, I will assume that other women with my hair texture and my style are also trustworthy and kind.
When I’m out with my baby I often need help with things. I may be using my hands to hold my baby or to soothe him. When I need help getting something out of my purse, or picking up something I dropped, I often have to ask a total stranger. I look around for someone trustworthy and kind.
After that Complexity class, I began to notice that I usually asked for help from other moms who looked more or less like me. I decided to try an experiment. I started asking for help from strangers who don’t look like me. An older businessman near Bay Street. A young Asian woman coming out of the art gallery. A Black teenager with headphones plugged into his phone.
And guess what? They all helped me. They were all kind. I was suddenly having sweet interactions with total strangers who don’t look like me. My city and my world got a little bigger. I hadn’t even known it was small.