30 Patti Digh

I dare you to stop fixing and start listening.

There is a black/white race dialogue program here in Asheville, NC, where I live. Each session meets for nine weeks, and in those weeks, groups of black and white people meet together in small groups to talk about racism in our area. You meet with the same 10-12 people each Monday night for several hours.

We read, we listen to films and speakers, we explore. And then we talk. We hear stories and hurt each other’s feelings. We step on toes and sometimes, but not always, become friends across a racial divide. We let go of our stories about each other, and peel back surfaces to get to cores. We tell the truth, our truth, about race. It is sometimes very painful and sometimes very beautiful.

People tell stories of being given the old, worn-out textbooks from the white schools to use, and each black student being handed a piece of sandpaper at the end of the term to erase any evidence of black hands having touched those books before returning them.

Older women tell of never wearing an overcoat to shop, no matter how cold, because they’ve been stopped so many times by store security to check whether they are shoplifting.

White people tell of trying to do the right thing, but being shot down so many times they’ve stopped trying.

As a facilitator of those groups, I know that inevitably by just the second week, after reading or hearing something that enraged them, a white person will get up with a magic marker and say, “THIS IS HORRIBLE. HOW CAN THIS BE HAPPENING IN 2013? WE HAVE TO FIX THIS! WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO?” as they turn toward a flip chart to do what we all do—plan, strategize, fix.

Inevitably and quietly, one of the black members of the group will say something that sounds like this: “Fix what? You haven’t even heard what we have to say yet. You don’t know our stories yet.”

We are a fix-it nation.

We get rewarded for fixing things.

We get promoted for making things better.

We get lots of “likes” on Facebook for fixing, petitioning, yelling, striving.

Continuous improvement is our national tattoo.

I dare you to step out of fix-it mode. To simply reside with the issues and challenges for a while. Get to know them, their complexity and their wickedness. Walk with them, hear them first. Get uncomfortable with them. Stay uncomfortable.

I was called once by a manufacturing company because white employees were putting nooses on the lockers of black employees. “Can you help?” the HR director asked. Having done a lot of work around race issues, I could help. I asked what he had in mind, and the answer changed my work forever: “We were thinking about something like a one or two hour training program.”

In that moment, I knew what fixing does—it denies the complexity of a situation, and it makes it worse by acting as if a simple solution will address it.

I dare you to let go of your need to fix, and all the glory that comes with that. Pick up your need to listen and get uncomfortable enough to truly understand first.

 

Patti Digh
Writer, speaker, and teacher who focuses on four questions in her life: Did I love well? Did I live fully? Did I let go deeply? Did I make a difference? She writes at 37days.com, a blog that emerged from a fifth question: What would I be doing today if I only had 37 days to live?

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5 thoughts on “30

  1. I so appreciate this reminder. Thank you for this dare.

    My inquiry around this involves seeing on the one hand our fixation on function and utility – how something must have a ‘usefulness,’ a practical benefit that we can experience (immediately, would be good!), and how we undervalue ‘just being with’ on the other. More and more I am beginning to see the invitation to shift from an orientation of UTILITY to an orientation of INTIMACY. And the more I lean into the invitation, the more I see that the value of this shift is – not sure how to put it but, perhaps – r/evolutionary?

  2. Patti, you know I am a teacher and ugly raises its ugly little head on a regular basis. In a classroom, well, you have to “deal” with it, but the evolution to FIX it doesn’t occur rapidly or even neatly. It just is. You learn to live together even if it is a truce. Sometimes, I agree with you, it is just going to be there for a while. Sometimes it is too big or too complex or just out of my sphere to fix. I deal with colleagues who also bring something ill to the mix. I am not sure I am innocent and sometimes I don’t care. We are still evolving as human beings. We are still learning to trust. In a classroom, it is like being in a waiting room at the emergency room of a hospital. There is a certain reason to be there and there isn’t always that pleasant banter or desire to wait politely or patiently. Everyone ends there at one time or another, but school brings us together for one of those big moments in life. It is like triage for people 101 and I don’t really even think most teachers get it – they just do the schoolwork and move on. “Shut up and sit down and do your work.” I enjoyed Project 137 because I heard all these voices, all these human problems and joys rumbling about and I felt so relieved that I was just as weird and wonderful as the next. I remember one person’s posts were always so negative, so confrontational, so bent on getting a negative response and I even tried to reason with her with words. NOT. I just skipped over her for a while and then she was gone one day. I just let her be. I ended up twirling around with many delightful souls and that is just the way it is in life, in a classroom, and even in the emergency room. Perhaps we need to see life as a kind of equal opportunity incubation room. Sometimes we just have to wait and someone will eventually listen to us. Yes, there will be fixing, but there is just that waiting. We all wait in one way or another.

  3. Ah. I have black neighbors and friends. We do this all the time, and have for years. no official meetings, just talking. Just knowing each other. It is no longer uncomfortable. It is knowledge. It is acceptance. It is truth. And it being real life, they don’t unfriend me for not being a fan of President Obama’s. They know me. I know them. Dare accepted and done.

  4. Beautifully expressed. Such clarity about the drive to fix. “Stay uncomfortable” blasted away my personal guilt and impatience over not
    being able to change the entire paradigm around money just because I see how distorted it is, see the right, healthy, holy and creative way, and can articulate it and live it myself. I must remember not to drive my business and offerings from this intense desire to fix the world. It isn’ what the world needs. It’s okay for us to be uncomfortable with the complexity and horror of how money is being used and viewed. It’s part of the healing process. Thank you for this essential reminder.

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