A couple of weeks ago, I did something which, at the time, felt enormously risky. I lead an experiential session on diversity for the Interfaith Foundation that ordained me.
The reason doing so felt as acutely vulnerable as it did goes something like this: Diversity is an arena where, especially as a white person raised in western culture, failure is guaranteed. There are no two ways about it; fuck ups are inevitable from my particular privileged vantage point. Besides which, inclusion looks different to different people, so there’s no “getting it right” for everyone. And yet diversity is also an arena I believe we have to be willing to step up and into, in order to really have a shot at creating welcoming, inclusive, and safer spaces.
As if this wasn’t enough, the subject is one that feels profoundly personal. Certainly, diversity is something I care deeply about as a practitioner; I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating on a diversity guide for professionals in my field over the last few months, and the topic of how to create more inclusive spaces within the limits of my resources is one I wrestle with on a regular basis. But more than that, having grown up outside the UK, and received my fair share of “go back to where you came from” messages; and having more recent experience of being a gender non-conforming person navigating heteronormative culture; diversity matters to me in a way that runs deep.
So there I was, sharing something I cared passionately about, but could not possibly claim to be an expert in, and which has the potential to cut me to the quick, raise old scars, and leave me feeling exposed and vulnerable.
Not entirely unlike opening up to intimacy, in other words.
And what is diversity, ultimately, but an invitation into relationship, across divides that can often be confronting and profoundly uncomfortable. So I thought I’d share some of the suggestions I had for the group that day, and unpack how they might serve us in the context not just of diversity, but also of intimacy (topics which are, thankfully, becoming increasingly intertwined for many of us anyway).
My reason for attempting to create an experiential diversity session was because I notice that, time and again, it’s those of us who have been there and felt that who go on to want to do something about it. Understanding is born of experience; if we haven’t had an experience in our physical and emotional bodies, it’s very hard for us to really get behind what another person is sharing. And cultivating a deep belief in the truth and validity of another’s experience and identity is a key ingredient in both diversity and intimacy. But if we haven’t had that personal experience of something, the only way we’re really going to get engaged with it is if we are exposed to another’s experience, in such a way as to trigger compassion in us. Compassion is the seed of change. (Which is of course why many of us work so hard to stay distracted on a daily basis, rather than staying open to the world around us. Our world is in a lot of pain right now; we all know that at some level, and we know that if we engage, we’ll be moved by it, and want to do something about it – something very few of us feel we have time for.)
When it comes to intimate relationship, making the time to open up to our partner’s experience with our eyes, ears, and hearts – making the effort to step out of our own story, and into theirs – is what allows that game-changer compassion into the space between us. If we both stay stuck in out stories, then we stay in different places, and in disconnection. If, however, we can tenderly hold our own story, whilst also allowing theirs to fill in the gaps in it, we co-create a new, fuller story – and in doing so, we find our way back to being each other’s ally. In her Ted Talk, The Power of Connection, Hedy Schlefer describes this as “crossing the bridge to the world of the other, and bringing our full presence on the other side”. I think of it as a kind of Deep Listening, a listening that is done with the body, in the heart, rather than with a head that is full of “what about me”s and reactions.
Getting Comfortable with Discomfort
Whether we’re listening to the other in the form of someone from a different background to us, or to the other who was once our beloved but suddenly seems to be a complete stranger, it’s likely that at least some of what we hear will make us uncomfortable. And, if growth is on our agenda, that’s entirely appropriate. Think of the seed that must come completely undone in order to grow into a shoot; the caterpillar that is incarcerated in its cocoon and then forced to break its bonds in order to become the butterfly. Discomfort is a characteristic of learning, of growing, of transformation. And in order to really meet another, to stay present with them, to come to know and understand them, we need to get comfortable with a degree of discomfort.
(I want to be absolutely clear here that, when I say discomfort, I’m talking about the kind of discomfort that is dynamic in the space between two people, who are working creatively and compassionately on it together. Not the kind that is consistently imposed on one person by another in the form of aggression – whether that aggression is passive in the form of criticism, guilt-tripping, or withdrawal of affection, or active in the form of raised words or fists. That’s not discomfort. That’s violence. Please don’t be getting comfortable in there.)
Finally, it’s important to talk about self-care when it comes to both intimacy and diversity. Because just as it is not one person’s job to change the world, it is also not one person’s job to save a relationship. What is our job is the piece of the puzzle that sits at the intersection of what needs to be done, and what we have the passion and resources to do. That’s our patch, and it’s ours to tend. And in order to tend it effectively, we need to tend to ourselves first and last. In order to be present to the space between us, we need to be willing and mindful to dance back and forth between being present to the other, and present to ourselves. Compassion, deep listening, and the willingness to sit and breathe with the discomfort – these are gifts we must extend to the self, in order to be able to effectively extend them to another.