Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Ruth Krall, "Bearing Witness: Part One — Paying Attention" (2)

Vincent van Gogh, "The Good Samaritan," original in the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, The Netherlands, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons for online sharing.

The following posting is a continuation of Ruth Krall's essay "Bearing Witness: Part One — Paying Attention." The first half of this essay appeared in this previous posting. As that posting and others preceding it have noted, this essay is one in a series of essays Ruth has entitled "Compassionate Peacemaking: Healing the World's Wounds One at a Time." Clicking from one preceding essay to the next will show you the entire series posted on Bilgrimage thus far. 

In this essay, Ruth argues persuasively that paying attention — to the dynamics within ourselves as well as to the world around us — is an essential skill or spiritual practice to cultivate as we engage in peacemaking and healing the wounds of others. Ruth writes,

Bearing witness as a form of paying attention is a beginning place for anyone who seeks to become a healer of trauma. It is the foundational skill for making a difference in situations of injustice and violation. It is an essential skill for individuals, who seek to birth and nurture personal and institutional justice and accountability; who seek to create personal and institutional transparency and honesty; who seek to develop compassion in the commons.

The essay that follows is the second half of Ruth's essay on bearing witness as paying attention. Endnote numbers begin at xxxi because this essay continues the one preceding it.

Compassionate Peacemaking: Healing the World's Wounds One at a Time

Part One: Bearing Witness

"Bearing Witness: Part One — Paying Attention" (2)

Ruth Elizabeth Krall, MSN, PhD

Por Ejemplo/For Example

For example, many years ago on a camping trip in coastal Mexico where I did not fluently speak the language I helplessly watched a friend drink so much alcohol that she eventually needed to kneel down before the toilet as if it were God’s sacred altar. As she puked, with me standing watch over her, I became aware that a somewhat drunken man was very much interested in us. I did not know what to do to protect my friend and to protect myself. Abandoning her was not an option. I was stone sober. I knew she often became belligerent when she drank — reasoning with her was likely to be futile. She was as likely to leave with the drunken stranger that night as she was to return to our campsite with me. Remembering my father's voice at age sixteen (If you think or sense that you are in danger, Betsy, ask a trustworthy adult — someone you know — for help), I decided to sprint as fast as I could to my friend's family's campsite and to wake her father. While this meant leaving my intoxicated friend alone and vulnerably unguarded in the bar's female rest room, it seemed to be my only option.

My friend's dad and I got my very drunken friend home safely to her own bed. Her father's anger at her drunken behavior was, strangely enough, very comforting to me. I knew he would protect her. Finally, after nearly thirty minutes of incessant chiming, my internal warning bells (about her drunkenness creating a dangerous life situation for both of us) ceased their loud, persistent chiming and I could allow myself to fall asleep. My friend was safe; I was safe; both of her parents were wide awake, and each of them was very angry with both of us. Everything could wait until morning to be sorted out in more detail. It was time to let go of my anxiety and to fall asleep.

There is a sense in which contemporary media and our obsession with its endless entertainment and information possibilities (as well as the daily news) are also a saturation drug. Information overload causes mental (and spiritual) fatigue. Our experience of cognitive and emotional fatigue limits our ability to pay genuine compassionate attention to our world. Our selves become fragmented; our relationships superficial; our attention span both agitated and exhausted. Depending on our personalities and our social position in life, we become less able to pay attention to things which matter — and to compassionately and thoughtfully pace our interactions with others. Overwhelmed by stimuli, we stop seeking to find specific places where we can make positive life and culture-enhancing contributions to our families, friends, communities and the global world.

The twentieth-century's great spiritual teachers (xxxi);  great preachers (xxxii); great spiritual poets (xxxiii); great healers (xxxiv); and great shamans (xxxv) have all taught us (individually and collectively) the principles of paying attention — to the inner world of the body-soul-mind and to the outer world of self-other human relationships and to the spiritual teachings of the natural world.

Healing the wounds (of ourselves, our clients, and our world) means paying attention with compassion, with engaged curiosity, and with a steadfast intention to collect and organize accurate and truthful information. It means taking the time to differentiate factually accurate information from propaganda, rumor, outright lies, and to ascertain truthfulness from flawed opinionated ideologies. It means paying attention to our deepest intuitions — seeking to understand how accurate they are or how contaminated they have become by our culture's continuous noise. This bifurcated attention is especially needed in solving conflicts in situations of human violence. We need to pay attention to our deepest intuitions at the same time we pay close attention to the outer world.

As we closely observe our outer world (especially in times of conflict, violence and rage), intuitive information is also developing inside the observing mind. As we open and shut our empathic barriers, the inner observing self is collecting information and organizing its intuitions. The inner self's warnings may be overt or they may be subtle and covert. In our attempts simultaneously to assist others and to protect our own selves, paying attention is essential.

Bearing witness — as in paying attention — means educating ourselves about truth; it also means learning about the merits of competing truth claims. Paying attention also means learning to focus our attention; it means learning to investigate issues and situations which catch our attention; it means learning to see accurately, whether by our naked eyes, by intuition, or by technology — such as telemetrics, electronic microscopes, and outer space satellites. It means developing technologies and methodologies for advanced study (such as count and measure research) and personal or professional intuitions that help us to make visible — thus understandable — that which has previously been hidden and invisible.

Most importantly, I think, bearing witness in this sense means learning to see that which we have been culturally taught and conditioned not to see. It means countering our natural human tendency to deny that information which (1) makes us uncomfortable; (2) counters our learned ideologies; (3) or threatens our personal and collective security. It means developing a capacity to see with the heart as well as with the eyes. It means learning to hear with the intuition as well as with the ears. It means developing compassion for the other — whom we often do not really see. Finally, it means developing compassion for our own selves — especially when we do not yet see or hear clearly those truths which we need to live our individual and collective lives in balance with the universe.

In addition, perhaps most importantly, paying attention enables us to make ethical and moral decisions in our personal lives, in our professional lives, and in our social lives with others.

We Learn by Paying Attention

As citizens we cannot foresee how things will turn out when we start.

Rachel Maddow (xxxvi)

As I woke up the other morning, I was thinking about moral and ethical corruption. One context for this waking reverie is the 2019 presidential impeachment process currently underway in Washington, D.C. But even more important for my own awareness about these issues of institutional violence and corruption is a simple reality: I have worked inside two very separate and very different professional organizations where embezzlement by the institutions' chief financial officer was uncovered.  I was not directly or even indirectly involved in either of these two situations. I learned about them by public media and internal announcements.

In each of these two widely separated-in-time examples, it was a subordinate — much lower on the institutional power pecking order, someone in the accounting and budgeting departments — who saw something unusual in the books and decided to examine these transactions with much more care. By following the money trail, both of these subordinates eventually uncovered the details of their supervisor's embezzlement.

In neither situation did I know the bookkeeper who followed the money trail. I do not have, therefore, his or her first-hand perspective on what happened. In one situation I only know what the institutional press release reported. In the second, however, I know what I was told after the fact by my department chair, professional and institutional gossip, and by the local news media.

In the latter situation, I did know the guilty administrator. In none of my encounters with this institutional chief financial officer did I suspect graft. In his relationships with junior members of the organization, he was a consummate, business-like professional. Not knowing him well, I still trusted him. I did not hear internal warning bells that something was amiss. I was trusting. I was, I suppose, naïve about the potential for institutional corruption. The embezzling individual had treated me with professional courtesy and I trusted this person to do his/her job just as s/he trusted me to do mine.  

Reading organizational management theory, however, it is quite clear to me that each whistle-blowing subordinate needed to

be in a position to recognize that something was amiss
make a conscious decision to pay attention, i.e., to look more closely at the books
hold an internal conversation with the self about how to proceed
hold external conversations with others about what s/he had uncovered
lodge a formal accusation about his/her department head's financial misconduct with the department head's administrative superior — in this case an institutional vice-president.

Because individuals in pyramidal organizations intuit that whistle-blowing is often unwelcome and organizationally punished, this kind of self-authority is rare. In my experience of institutional life, no one eagerly goes looking for a reason to blow the whistle on a supervisor or boss. Institution questioning is actually quite rare in situations of structurally-hidden malfeasance. Individuals tripping across the evidence of an institutional crime must make decisions about lodging complaints or staying silent. If what one inadvertently or even deliberately uncovers is an institution-wide sanctioned or enabled criminal activity with many players, the stakes are even higher. (xxxvii)

Individuals in a whistle-blowing situation usually engage in a period of self-questioning before they go public with what they have observed, with what know. They may double-check and triple-check the information they have uncovered. Crossing the Rubicon (i.e., going public with damaging information about one's superiors and/or peers in pyramidal organizations) is a daunting and an intimidating reality. Individuals generally ask these kinds of questions of themselves before proceeding:  

Do I have accurate information about institutional and financial misconduct by my superior or others inside the institution?
If I am silent about what I have uncovered, what are the institutional consequences for me, for others, and for the institution?
If I speak up about what I know, what will likely happen to me and to others?
If I am mistaken, what are the consequences to me and to others?
What powers of retaliation do individuals and/or the corporation have that might be used against me
If I choose to speak out as a whistle-blower, what are the potential consequences to my employment and to my personal or professional reputation?
What if, despite all my efforts to uncover the facts, I am proven or judged to be wrong (or worse yet, malicious) by individuals higher in the organizational chain of power?
What if everyone in management knows about this greed and graft and accepts it as normal institutional behavior?
What if individuals in other management positions are also directly involved in it, benefitting from it or covering it up?
Who, if anyone, will protect my rights for due process if I proceed?
What if others — most especially my work supervisors and their supervisors — are also involved in this situation as co-offenders?
What if I am fired outright for reporting the evidence I've uncovered of institutionalized wrong-doing?
What are the potential consequences for my boss when I report him or her for fraud, misconduct, and corrupt business practices; what are the consequences for his family?
What is my ethical obligation to the organization, to my boss, to my peers, and to my subordinates inside the chain of power?
What is my ethical or moral obligation to the institution qua institution?
What are my ethical obligations to the customers of my institution?
What is my ethical or moral obligation to the surrounding community?
Who am I? What are my principles? What is my moral and ethical grounding? (xxxviii)

The Powers of the Isms

You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates the same people you do.

Annie Lamott (xxxix)

Many of us — perhaps all of us — wear cultural blinders in our encounters with life, our multiple environments, and with a wide diversity of other people. These blinders affect our ability to pay attention. They have an effect on our ability to know factual truth. The better we know ourselves, the better we can manage these blinders. In my personal experiences with life to date, other people are the best mirrors because the spontaneously reflect back to us what they see (and intuit) when they encounter us.

Xenophobia, prejudice against religious minorities, skin color racism, gender identity prejudice, sexism, classism, heterosexism, religious phobias and prejudices towards world religions we do not understand, ideological hostilities towards sexual minorities, a prejudice against victimized peoples and cultures, a rabid nativistic nationalism, as well as various forms of economic class and gender entitlement and skin color preferment are all embedded inside the social structures in which we live — invisible to the naked and non-compassionate eye. In my experience of life to date, these kinds of prejudices and phobias are as true of the institutional church and the nation-state as they are true of individuals.

The intersectionality of the various forms of cultural prejudice and hatreds in our psyche makes it very difficult for culturally disadvantaged individuals or communities to catch our attention and to change our personal and collective prejudices. (xl)

Our often insistent denial of the noxious presence of the isms and cultural hatreds in our personal and institutional lives makes them invisible. We do not see their presence in our daily encounters with others because we do not want to see; we do not hear what we do not want to hear: willfully blind and deaf to the evils which surround us, we cannot bear witness to systemic injustice in this sense because not only our eyes and ears are numbed and closed: our minds, and our hearts are similarly clouded. (xli)

Nevertheless, to the victims of these forms of socially malfunctioning institutions and cultures, individual and systemic injustices are very visible. Hearing their victims' critique and their factual reporting, we are wise to pay non-defensive attention. Teaching ourselves to see and to pay attention means acknowledging that these malignant realities and social viruses are, indeed, present among us. It means owning our particular and very personal share of the culture's denial. It means that we must learn to ask ourselves and others, What do I not see here and what do I not understand? It also means asking, What do I need to learn and do in order to be a useful change agent in this situation?

In addition, it usually means growing up emotionally and spiritually. It means learning to own our very unique, personal and cultural history of bias, denial, entitlement, and enablement.

In the undergraduate classroom, I would often remind students that one essential act of a would-be peace activist was to ask the self and others two simple questions:

Who is missing at this table, in this conversation, in this consultation?
What do I/we need to do to remedy this absence?

The issue in this kind of questioning is to avoid tokenism — including someone only because they represent a minority point of view. Rather, we need to see their presence as vital to our understanding of the complexity of the issues at hand. We need them present to help us individually and collectively confront our cultural and personal blinders.

If, for example, I am part of a committee seeking to address homelessness:

Do I know any homeless individuals?
Have I talked with any homeless individuals?
Are there any homeless individuals sitting at the table with the committee?
How many homeless individuals do I know: do they represent a spectrum of gender, color, ethnicity, age, disabilities, and other socio-cultural and biological differences?
Most important, I think, is the question of genuine and hospitable inclusivity — being welcomed at the table of discussion because they are the experts in homelessness.

Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity all have scriptures and teachings which seek to educate the human heart; which seek to free the human mind from its blinders; which teach genuine hospitality; which seek to eradicate human suffering; which seek to bear witness to the fundamental truths of human existence; which seek to teach us compassion; which proclaim the potential of rescuing us from our unique pathologies of the spirit.  

As a human species, we disregard the warnings and teachings of our many cultures' true prophets and seers at our own peril. Teaching us to pay attention, they help us to begin the needed work of compassionate speaking up and working for cultural and personal accountability. They ask us to ponder the relationship of social justice activism to the spiritual wisdom of our respective cultures. Most importantly, it seems to me, they ask us to bear witness in actions, i.e., asking us to become activists for justice and compassion.

Coming to understand the nature of embodied evil inside our various cultures and institutions, the wisest among us model and teach compassionate witnessing to that which is harmful and that which is evil. The perils of judging another human being as totally other — as having no shared humanity with us — are well known. This kind of us versus them attitude leads to human atrocities, genocide, and mass killing.  

We all know this: there is a multitudinous array of trauma-causing human behaviors. Human communities — and individuals — throughout the globe struggle every day with the aftermaths of violence, violation, and betrayal. And in nearly every world culture, a prophet rises up to provide a warning cairn for our collective future if we do not change our attitudes and behavior. (xlii)

Bearing witness as a form of paying attention is a beginning place for anyone who seeks to become a healer of trauma. It is the foundational skill for making a difference in situations of injustice and violation. It is an essential skill for individuals, who seek to birth and nurture personal and institutional justice and accountability; who seek to create personal and institutional transparency and honesty; who seek to develop compassion in the commons.


xxxi. Such as Pema Chodron, Mary Daly, Lauren Artress, bell hooks, Nelle Morton, The Dalai Lama, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Parker Palmer, Thich Nhat Hanh, Matthew Fox, and Rabbi Rami Shapiro.

xxxii. Such as William Sloan Coffin, Jr., Martin Luther King, Jr., Harry Emerson Fosdick, Robin Meyers, and Bishop Desmond Tutu.

xxxiii. Such as Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Adrienne Rich, Robert Frost, Audre Lorde, and Mark Nepo.

xxxiv. Such as Rachel Naomi Remen, Carl Hammerschlag, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Peter Levine, Robert Resnick, Emmett E. Miller, Jeanne Achterburg, Andy Weil, Herbert Benson, Martin Rossman, Judith Herman and Bessel van der Kolk.

xxxv. Such as Sandra Ingerman, Fools Crow, Brooke Medicine Eagle, Michael Harner, Hank Wesselman, Starhawk, Sun Bear, and Rolling Thunder.

xxxvi. Rachel Madow on MSNBC, October 31, 2019.  The statement is at the 5:29 point.

xxxvii. Two books have helped me to understand crimes of obedience and the enablement of these crimes by bystanders and institutional witnesses: (1) Cohen, S. ( 2001). States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press; (2) Hamilton, V. L. and Kelman, H. (1987). Crimes of Obedience: Toward a Social Psychology of Authority and Responsibility. New Haven: Yale University Press.

xxxviii. Ibid.

xxxix. Lamott, Annie. At Goodreads Quotes.

xl. Crenshaw, K. (2016). "The Urgency of Intersectionality: A TED Women Talk." At TED Ideas Worth Retrieving.

xli. Cohen, S. Op. cit., Lifton, R. J. (1986). The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. New York: Basic Books; Martel, F. (2019). In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy. London: Bloomsbury/Continuum.

xlii. For example: Gandhi (India); Martin Luther King, Jr. (United States); Bishop Tutu (South Africa); Jane Addams (United States); Mother Terese (Yugoslavia), Dorothy Day (United States), Aung San Suu Kyl (Burma), the Dalai Lama (Tibet), Rigoberto Menchu (Guatemala), Nadia Murag (Iraq), Thomas Bancaya (the Hopi Nation), Greta Thurberg (Australia), Doug Hostetter (United States).

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