What difference do we make?

The Practice:


Even in a nation with millions of people, what we do affects each other, for better or worse. We have relationships with others that extend through our families, organizations, and countries. We are connected with every other person in our common humanity. It is certainly appropriate to consider our political relationships in the societies that we share. How we govern ourselves might seem abstract and remote, but its consequences are intimate and personal.

You could be worried about the economy, the storms and droughts of climate change, or new diseases spreading across the globe. You might be alarmed by the rise of authoritarianism around the world. You could be appalled, as I am here in America, by our long history of slavery, racism, and injustice. You could be deeply concerned about the world that our children and theirs will inherit.

When certain things happen, such as the murder of a black man by a white policeman, it’s natural to feel stunned, shocked, powerless. And to be flooded with outrage or an overwhelming sorrow. Still, even in the midst of all this, you can be mindful: aware and present, and not entirely swept away. Then at some point you take a breath and look around and try to figure out what to do.

One thing to do is to vote. We vote in lots of ways. Besides what we do at a ballot box, we offer a kind of vote – a choice with consequences – when we sign a petition or send money to a cause or candidate. In a broad sense, we vote when we speak up for anyone who is being mistreated. Inside your mind, you cast a kind of vote when you take a moral stand. The root of the word, vote, is vow: to make a commitment, to claim whatever power you do have – and use it.

Someone might say, “It doesn’t matter. Any single vow, any single vote – any thought or word or deed – is a drop in the ocean.”

But every choice matters to the person who makes it. Knowing that you are committed to something and have kept your word to yourself, that you’ve walked your talk, feels good in its own right. Plus it’s a powerful antidote to helplessness and despair.

Further, when others see you taking action, that can inspire them to do the same. And the gradual accumulation of many little efforts, drop by drop, can become a mighty stream. I came of age in the late 1960’s, and in my lifetime there’ve been major improvements in civil rights, environmentalism, gay marriage, and women’s rights. These changes have been the result of countless “votes” that have added up over time.

Of course there is still a long way to go. The votes we cast – with our ballots and words and deeds – are no guarantee of success. But if we don’t vote again and again, what’s guaranteed is failure.

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Vote for Facts

Being foggy about facts is like driving a car with your eyes closed. Some say that we can’t really know the truth about big things like national governments or climate change. I think that’s lazy at best. The basics are usually pretty easy to see. Who’s getting richer and who’s getting poorer? Are glaciers melting? Who’s strengthening democracy, and who’s weakening it? Ten or twenty minutes online with some credible sources will tell you a lot, particularly when they are consistent with each other. Depending on the issue, you can find good summaries for the general public from university institutes, scientific and professional organizations, nonpartisan nonprofits, Wikipedia, and major news organizations such as the BBC and the New York Times. These sources are not perfect, but what makes them credible is that they compete with each other for accuracy and when they fall short, they make corrections.

We are intimately affected by real events both in the hallways of our homes and in the halls of power. When someone tells you, “Don’t worry, you don’t need to know the truth, you don’t need to worry about that” . . . you usually do. People who lie in order to hold on to their authority de-legitimize it. Any person, group, or government that says facts are irrelevant, or makes it harder to find them, or uses disinformation to crowd out the truth is attacking the foundation of all healthy relationships.

Turn in Your Ballot
Voting is about participation – and participation itself is not partisan. I have my preferences, but fundamentally I don’t care how people vote, I just hope they’ll vote at all. Yet in US Presidential elections, about two in five people do not bother to vote – and young people, 18 to 25-year-olds, are even less engaged, although they will most inherit the effects of global warming, wealth inequality, and other serious problems. Turnout in American congressional and local elections is even lower. Voting is sacred. As Representative John Lewis wrote a few days before he died: “Democracy is not a state. It’s an act.”

Our votes matter. In 2016, for example, Donald Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million people – but just 78,000 votes in three states (Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania) put him in the White House. You can see who treats voting like it matters. Mail-in balloting is highly secure – and because there is a paper trail, it is actually more secure than electronic voting machines and less vulnerable to foreign interference. Whether in person or by mail, many studies have shown that actual cases of voter fraud are extremely rare, and never enough to sway an election. What does sway elections is voter suppression, when one political party makes voting as difficult as possible for its opponents. The only way to defeat those tricks is through high levels of voter turnout.

Confront Bad Faith
It’s one thing to argue about politics in good faith. Then there is a shared interest in the actual facts, and if you shouldn’t do something, well, I shouldn’t do it, either. As we’ve seen, telling the truth and playing fair are the foundation of all relationships – from two people in a couple to millions of people in a country. Lying and cheating are not tolerated in sports or business. So why do we put up with them in our politics?

What you do will depend on the situation. You might ignore some troll on Facebook, or gently ask a friend with different views if you could talk about politics in another kind of way.

Or as soon as it’s clear that the other person has zero interest in a good faith dialogue, you might say something like: What’s your real purpose here? You keep saying things that are untrue or unrelated to what I’m talking about. You’re just trying to change the subject instead of dealing with what I’m saying. Even if you don’t get anywhere with that person, you’ve stopped wasting your time, plus you might have a good effect on others who are watching.

Stand up for Others
I remember being eleven years old and the visceral shock of going to a gas station’s bathroom in North Carolina in 1963 and seeing three doors labeled: Men . . . Women . . . Colored. My life has had its difficulties, but as a white man I’ve been advantaged in many ways. I look at my home and my savings, and know they are the result of three kinds of things: personal efforts, luck (good and bad, including the genetic lottery), and advantages that operate by disadvantaging others. Some fraction of what I own comes from current and historical discrimination against women, people of color, and other marginalized groups. That fraction is not 100% but it’s sure not 0%. Whatever it is, it’s ill-gotten gains.

Most people don’t walk out the front door planning to disadvantage others. This is about sorrow, not shame, and compassion and a commitment to justice. For those of us who have benefited, as I have, from systemic advantages, I think there is a particular responsibility to do what we can. As we vote with our thoughts and words, we can listen, and feel the weight of what’s being said, and try to learn and not assume, and recognize impacts on others (whatever our intent may have been), and find the sincere desire to be an ally, and keep trying to be a better one. As we vote at the ballot box, we can choose politicians and policies that protect the youngest among us, that address racial inequities in the criminal justice system, and that create opportunities for every single one of us.

Vote for Yourself
Deep down, we each have the power to see what we see, value what we value, and make our own plans. It may not be safe or useful to say this out loud. But we can always say it to ourselves.

That’s a kind of vote. No matter what happens out there in the world, we can always vote within our own minds. It’s like we each have an inner voting booth. We can take refuge in the sure knowing of what we do there.

I draw guidance and strength from people who have faced vastly greater hardships than I have, and who speak of what we can do inside ourselves with the authority of their own suffering and pain. Most of these people are not famous, and still their words have tremendous weight. Some are well known, such as the Dalai Lama. I remember watching an interview with him in which he spoke of the terrible mistreatment that Tibetans face in their own country. In his face and tone and words, he expressed that irreducible human freedom to make our own choices, to claim the power that we do have, and to use it, and use it well, with compassion for all beings.

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Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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