Sometimes I feel as if the universe is trying to teach me something.
Not a spoon-fed chunk of wisdom, no. It’s more of a feeling that as I stumble my way through the different phases of life, I start to see questions and themes that point me in one direction or another, as if I am being gently nudged to keep on learning and moving forward, instead of collapsing by the side of the road in a heap and just giving up.
What I mean is: Sometimes, I find myself in periods where I have lots of time to think and reflect (usually, when I don’t have a full-time job). And during these periods, current events and personal interactions spark questions in my mind, or I start to surface consistent themes again and again. And then I read articles and books and listen to podcasts and then everything starts coalescing around the themes and the questions which are very much on my mind.
During my exit period from my last job, at the end of 2017, the questions felt something like:
–What is happening with people’s attitudes and beliefs about racism, equity, tolerance, and understanding? What is it actually doing to us, having a president and a political party that endorses and enables hate and intolerance?
–Have we made any meaningful advances when it comes to gender equality and the assault, harassment, and oppression of women?
Those are big questions, I know! And while I had some recent experiences that made my interest in these questions feel somewhat….personal, I also felt as if I were in an echo chamber where so many people were exploring these same questions, too. In the wide range of writers and thinkers and celebrities I follow on social media, some voices emerged that helped me clarify all of the different things I was feeling and thinking in these turbulent, painful, frightening times. It was frightening to spend so much time on Twitter and Facebook and see all of the hate and ignorance and darkness raging on in our societal discourse, but it was also comforting, to find points of light from eloquent writers and comedians and journalists who were engaged in the same questions and struggles I was.
I am now in another one of those periods, after having exited a toxic work situation with considerably more dispatch than I’ve ever done before. The advantages of having removed myself so quickly are considerable: I have far less anger to process, I am less marked by the experience, although I still have feelings of regret. As a result, the questions the universe has teed up for me this time feel less fraught and unhappy, and more fundamental and promising.
The main question is: how do we arrive at a more informed understanding of what it means to be human, these days? And in seeking that deeper understanding of what it means to be human, how does one then act on what is learned, in life and in work?
My professional identity, as you may have guessed from this blog and my c.v., is bound up in the practice of communications. Communications, one would think, is a profession that its very nature would keep a person tightly interwoven with all of the elements that make the experience of humanity simultaneously universal and wonderfully heterogenous. Communications is a profession that traffics in emotion, and in stories. In order to be good at our jobs—in order to engage our audiences and inspire them to care and to act, we need to remember all of the things that make us human, like empathy and love and anger and pragmatism.
However: just last week, I wrote a blog post about the basic elements of communications that treated communications very much as a series of steps and tactics. You develop your messages and your strategies, you identify your audiences, you figure out how to get your messages across, you like some things about what you do and you don’t like others, and hey presto! You are “doing” communications, professionally. I am not ashamed of the piece, by any means—in re-reading it, I think it serves a utilitarian purpose, for those who have no idea what the heck a professional communications career may involve, or who want to explain their jobs to their bewildered family members.
But I think my piece misses the fundamental question that the universe has put on my plate during my latest reflective period, about humanity and what that has to do with communicating more deeply, with the goal of connection being paramount above any policy or behavior change you may want to accomplish.
After I wrote that piece is when the universe started gently nudging me again, with the following content pieces:
ONE: Krista Tippett is the host of a podcast series called “On Being,” which many, many people recommended to me when I asked for suggestions before embarking on a very long drive. The series explores themes of spirituality and life and love and every single episode I listen to, I end up feeling as if my soul has grown by a few inches. The latest one I listened to, this past week, featured Esther Perel, a psychotherapist who has written and spoken about the notion of “erotic intelligence,” with the descriptor “erotic” going far beyond sexuality to encompass our sense of ourselves in how alive and engaged and joyful we are in our relationships and in our respective worlds.
At one point in the conversation, Tippett and Perel talked about how different conditions of humanity are evolving and changing with the proliferation of so much digital white noise. So, for example, the idea of “loneliness” loses the potentially beneficial aspect of solitude for self-knowledge and creative work and instead, we find ourselves cut off from each other by our devices. In other words, the loneliness of being in a quiet place to reflect and think is very different than the loneliness of being with another person who you supposedly are in a loving relationship with, yet you spend most of your time with each other just staring at your phones.
This blew my mind, a little bit: that we are now becoming aware of different types of loneliness. Human emotions are complex and often not easily describable by words – I face the same challenge when people tell me that a certain movie is “depressing” or “sad,” and then I watch it and I see what they mean but the story also evokes feelings of joy, flickers of hope, awe at the resilience of the human spirit. Thinking about the complexity of human emotions after this episode made me wonder: how naïve it is for communicators like me to think that we know how to spark emotions with our words and practices. Do we really, though? We may know how to accurately describe a thing that is happening—like, “our earth is boiling and we are killing people with our dependence on fossil fuels,” but do we really understand the huge range of feelings we are evoking with these words? Do we truly understand, for example, that a story that moves one person to tears and compassion leaves another person cold with indifference?
TWO: this past February, the New Yorker published a piece by the neurologist Oliver Sacks, who died in 2015, about his thoughts on the effects of digital technology on the human mind. TL: DR, he was not a fan. But I excerpted quotes here that particularly stuck with me in terms of thinking about communications as a fundamentally human endeavor:
Everything is public now, potentially: one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases. There is no privacy and apparently little desire for it in a world devoted to non-stop use of social media. Every minute, every second, has to be spent with one’s device clutched in one’s hand. Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently. They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.
I worry more about the subtle, pervasive draining out of meaning, of intimate contact, from our society and our culture.
As a neurologist, I have seen many patients rendered amnesic by destruction of the memory systems in their brains, and I cannot help feeling that these people, having lost any sense of a past or a future and being caught in a flutter of ephemeral, ever-changing sensations, have in some way been reduced from human beings to Humean ones.
How have I, and all of the other communicators in the world, reckoned with these cautions?
THREE, I need to talk about the latest episode from Let’s Hear It, which is a podcast series I really love for communicators who work with foundations or nonprofits. One of the podcast hosts and founders, Eric Brown, is also one of my dearest friends, and I was an early and relatively unremarkable guest for an episode when I honestly thought he and I were just having drinks, as we are wont to do. (Appropriately, the episode is named, “Consultants in Bars Having Cocktails.”)
This latest episode features a woman named Doniece Sandoval, a former marketing and PR professional who now runs an organization called Lava Mae, which provides mobile showers to homeless people, or as she calls them, “our unhoused neighbors.” Listening to the episode, I was brought to tears, because this big question I’ve been wrestling with, about what it means to be aware of one’s humanity, and to act on that awareness through one’s life and one’s work, is captured so beautifully by what Doniece Sandoval has done with this organization. She gave unhoused people services they desperately needed, one that allowed them to re-establish their senses of dignity and self-worth and the feeling of being seen and heard. She began with a correct assumption that people lacking stable homes would appreciate free showers, and she also listened carefully to what else they needed: safety, privacy, a sense of being valued through donated luxuries.
After listening to this episode, I realized that the possibility of connecting what one does, work-wise, with the best parts of what makes us human beings is always, always within reach. It is not always an easy possibility to make real: Lava Mae was not easy to get started, there were all sorts of challenges and obstacles to getting it up and running and even now, it was noted during the episode that it was not an easy funding sell (too direct service-y, not enough “system reform,” which should cause every funder aiming for system reform to check their bullshit meter, now). But now that it is up and running, the stories are simply remarkable—so far, far beyond the incredible-on-its-own feeling of serving a very basic human need.
So this is what I think the universe is trying to teach me, from all of the excerpts I’ve listed above and my own thoughts and experiences of recent days: in work and in life, it is always possible to reach for greater humanity in how one lives and works, even when the experience of being a human being feels more complex and more frightening, and more discouraging, even when you sense that others are not doing the same and in fact are doing the opposite. If your work is communications, see the end goal not as selling something or making someone do something, but as a collaborative, often lengthy, and humbling endeavor to forge real, authentic connections to other human beings.
(And if your work is food preparation or punching someone’s ticket, why, you can do that with greater humanity, too. I’m convinced of it.)
Updated to correct the spelling of Sandoval’s first name and to suggest yet another episode of On Being, this time with Jonathan Rowson, who talks about “integrating our souls, systems, and society,” or in other words, how to bring more of our inner selves into how we think about social change and politics. This was totally fascinating to me when he was discussing how this applies to climate change–how many people understand the facts about climate change but we do not feel the facts–we do not act as if we believe what is going to happen is actually going to happen. However, I was thinking that perhaps this application of inner self is what is so frightening about extreme-right politics these days–that there are leaders who have brought their inner selves to their approaches to governance and policies and their inner selves are about fear, selfishness, and corruption.