Tag Archives: privilege

Needs 1: The Elephant in the Living Room

Life coaching transformed my experience in several powerful ways. For me, however, there’s one central concept that underlies all the new language, ideas, strategies and choice making that has so reshaped myself and my life.

Every one of us has needs, and we’re driven by trying to get them met.

Duh, right? Written on the page like that, it seems ridiculously obvious. It’s not, though. It’s enormously complex and it affects every single choice we make. Let’s excavate a little.

In my old life, I defined needs as things like oxygen, water, food and shelter. Needs meant to me the necessities of survival. Anything else was wants, or even undeserved privilege. To need more than I have at any given moment is inconceivable to me, even now. To want more than  I have is shameful. I’ve spent my life with an internalized voice that informs me I should be damn grateful for my resources, because it’s so much more than many others have, and I’ve done nothing to deserve my good fortune.

Photo by Jan Phoenix on Unsplash

It’s undeniably true that I’ve had advantages because I’m white, I’m educated, I’m able-bodied, employed and have the ability to feed myself. I have access to potable hot and cold running water. I have a roof over my head. I have access to health care.

Are these realities of my life a matter of shame? Does wanting the roof over my head to stop leaking make me a privileged elitist? Does it assist anyone who has less than I to go hungry, or stop trying to earn a few dollars?

Privilege is a hot word right now in social discourse. It’s a word that shows up in discussions around gender and sex, racial issues, economic issues and geopolitical relations. Privilege is an important discussion, but the word has been used so frequently, especially as an insult, that it’s losing its meaning. Show me any two people anywhere and I’ll show you several different ways in which each one has resources and experiences not available to the other. Privilege is a word that points to competition for power, and our definitions of power are distorted into insanity. Privilege is too often used as a meaningless black and white label that expresses more about the speaker than it does the target.

Do you have a cell phone? I don’t. You’re more privileged than I am. Are you male? I’m not. You’re more privileged than I am. Are you Caucasian? I am. I’m privileged. I’m literate. Definite privilege from my point of view, but according to some, this makes me elitist (another word that’s becoming severely overused). I had and have access to vaccinations. I think this makes me privileged. An anti-vaxer thinks it makes me wrong and stupid.

And so it goes.

Have you noticed how quickly we’ve gone from the simple idea of human needs to politics–social, sexual, economic and geo?

An internet search defines a need as a “necessity; a thing that is wanted or required.” As I said above, I disagree with the “wanted” part. How do we decide what’s required? Who gets to define that? Requirements take me back to the my basic list: Oxygen, food, water, shelter. I’m convinced anything else is a want.

During life coaching, I was referred to The Center For Nonviolent Communication. They have a needs inventory posted that exploded my definition of needs.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

The first thing I noticed about the needs inventory is that my needs list occupies only a small fraction of the whole. Secondly, with the exception of food, water, shelter and sex, the inventory transcends anything that can be bought or sold. It’s not about stuff, money, biology, ethnicity, education, religion or “privilege.” In fact, it’s not a list that points out differences at all. It’s about intangible needs that we all have in common. All of us. You, me and them.

The first, second, fifth and tenth time I read this list, I cried. I printed it out and stuck it between the pages of my journal. As I worked with it, I felt deeply angry, terribly sad and a kind of furtive relief. Some unknown person or persons had written an inventory that expressed the deepest, most secret desires of my heart, desires I wasn’t really even conscious of. I couldn’t afford to be conscious of them.

Was it possible that other people wanted what I did? Was it okay to want these things, even normal?

The first time my life coach said to me, “You have a perfect right to get your needs met,” I felt so enraged I nearly hung up on him. It was the biggest, most outrageous lie anyone had ever said right to my face. I told him to never say that to me again.

Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash

If I knew anything, it was that I had no needs, and if I ever did entertain such a criminal, inappropriate, shameful and downright stupid thing as a need, it would never, ever get met. My job in life was not to have needs. My job was to meet the needs of those around me. I was terrible at that job, failed it every day, had no hope of ever doing it well, but that’s what I was for in the world.

The second grenade my coach threw was this: “Your needs are as important and not more important than anyone else’s.”

In the following months and years, right up until this day, I’ve been trying to come to terms with the transfiguration of some of my most deeply rooted and fundamental beliefs and rules. Understanding needs has hung the formerly invisible elephant in my living room with neon lights. I’ve reframed my history and my past and present relationships. Coming to terms with my needs has enriched my relationship with myself and others is astounding ways.

I realize now my needs have always been present, driving my behavior, just as those around me have been driven by their needs, but I think few of us have access to that central information and understanding. This is ironic, because I’ve always been well aware of what other people want from me; what they expect. What I now understand is what some people want — compliance, submission, adhering to rules and expectations — is surface behavior that masks the simple need for personal power.

As I said earlier, our relationship to power is so diseased and distorted that we’re all affected by a kind of cultural insanity. We believe that power-over will fill our need. We believe that hate, projection, physical brutality and force, name-calling, labeling, gaslighting, dishonesty and manipulation will give us what we need.

Power-with is often sneered upon, or used as a Trojan Horse within which the true desire for power-over hides. Once we understand the needs inherent in all human interaction, it’s not hard to discern the difference between power-over and power-with. If it’s accepted that one party’s needs are as important, but not more important than another’s, that’s power-with. If, on the other hand, one individual, group, political movement or any other social entity demonstrates persistent tactics that seek to take power away from someone else, that’s power-over.

Humans make a lot of noise. We create language, slap on labels, pick up and pass on meaningless bits of jargon and ideology. We deny, distort, and cling grimly to our beliefs. We freely use humiliation, contempt and aggression to shut each other up and try to threaten others into believing/behaving in the way we want them to. We fight fiercely to get our needs met, no matter the expense to others. Our win is based on someone else’s loss. This is the environment of power-over.

Humans are also remarkably flexible and resilient. We can be curious. We can think critically, synthesize information, study things, make observations. We can develop the great strength of learning how to be wrong. We can demonstrate heroism, compassion, kindness and generosity. We can be elegant and meaningful communicators. We can create communities of deep connection that include people, animals, plant life and the environment. We can aspire to a world in which the words “privilege” and “elitist” lie down to rest because competition has been discarded in favor of cooperation. Everyone’s needs have equal importance, and no one is allowed to overrun another. Success is deomonstrated by win-win. This is the environment of power-with.

One of my daily crimes is having needs. Trying to get my needs met underlies my choice making, my behavior and my motivation. It even underlies the kind of music I like. It’s a great big elephant in the center of my experience, and it requires food and water, room to roam and attention.

Skim over the needs inventory. Choose one aspect of your life: Job, relationship, what have you.

Now, in the deepest, darkest privacy of your mind, ask yourself, “Are my needs being met?” Don’t think about the answer. Feel it.

Behold the elephant!

Photo by Graham Hunt on Unsplash

 

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

 

Going On From Here

I haven’t enjoyed this week much. It reminds me of the week after 09/11, when I thought I would drown in the hate and despair around me.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

I’m not on Facebook, but my partner is and I hear more than I want to about what’s going on there. I’m developing a pathological hatred of the news in any form, even as I obsessively read the internet. I think about friends, family, acquaintances and a world full of frightening strangers with the power, strength and willingness to hurt others, including me.

I work at home as a medical transcriptionist, a fact I don’t talk about much because I respect the privacy laws in this country around medical information. My book of business is presently in Illinois, but I’ve also worked extensively in New York, Ohio and Alabama. I spend twenty-four hours a week typing dictated stories about strangers, a significant number of them experiencing physical and emotional pain and suffering from the current situation.

Here in central rural Maine Native Americans in our community are victims of hate crimes. Their people have been in this place for thousands of years.

Photo by Sue Tucker on Unsplash

It seems to me in the last week we’ve put on the table an infinite number of ways in which to divide ourselves from one another; an infinite number of ways to express hate, intolerance and blame; an infinite number of labels to weigh ourselves and others down with. None of it feels useful

I want to find ways to support what I believe in and reach out to other people. I want to do something, no matter how small, to make a difference in this, but I’m noticing something interesting about that. As soon as I communicate about some kind of action I’ve taken, someone cuts me down. I’ve been told wearing a safety pin is patronizing and indicates privilege; I’m not welcome in America; I’m going to burn in hell; and I’ve joined a hate organization (that would be MoveOn.org).

Maybe no one out there needs support, or wants to make a contribution to unity and respect, but I don’t really believe that. At any rate, I need support and I do want to make a contribution, so here are some thoughts about what would help me.

Here’s a graphic to contemplate as we go on:

Enough with the labels. We have to stop this. One thousand labels can’t define the complex creature a human being is. I maintain that what’s happening now is NOT about race, gender, religion, politics, immigration or socioeconomics. What’s happening now is about power—how we define it and understand it, how we use it and what we’ll do to gain it or overthrow it. I think the most important question to ask ourselves is if we support power over others or power with others. That’s really the bottom line. It’s at the heart of all the disagreements. The rest is just inflammatory and dangerous distraction.

Enough with the apocalyptic stories and predictions. The fact is nobody knows what’s going to happen now. We’re in uncharted territory politically, economically, socially and environmentally. Many people think that’s a good thing. Sure, it’s scary. The unknown always is. On the other hand, politics as usual wasn’t working very well for most of us in this country and change is an inevitable part of life. Blessing or disaster, the point is none of us know the future and we’ll all have to deal with whatever happens as best we can.  Terrifying ourselves and one another with dire predictions, threats and stories won’t help anyone. Fear is terribly contagious and terribly ineffective in decision making, but it’s a useful tool for manipulation. I encourage you not to allow anyone to use it on you.

The best defense against fear and misinformation is to do your own research. Don’t let your favorite news station, radio station, astrologist, movie star, blogger, drinking buddy or social media tell you what to think. Don’t let your lover, spouse, parent, church, tribe or fear control what you believe. You’re not a sheep! Think for yourself. All the people in the headlines right now are real people. They have lives, histories, Wiki pages, on-line organizations, quotes and podcasts. You can read all about them. Look at the news organizations in other countries and what they’re reporting for a contrast to domestic news. Don’t just blindly believe every rumor and fearful whisper! Try to discern between fact and opinion. Collect information. Educate yourself. Research. Check out opposing views. Take responsibility for your opinions and beliefs. If you need help with this, find a librarian!

Stop worrying about everyone else and clean up your own act. Sit down with yourself and figure out who you are. Think about what you say and what your actions are and notice whether they’re congruent. What do you believe, and why? What are your priorities? What kind of outcomes do you want for yourself and for your community, however you define community? What is your agenda? Do you feel you have a right to make choices for others? Are you willing for others to make choices for you? If you feel disenfranchised, are you willing to accept support from someone outside your group, or are you going to savage every hand held out to you?

Stop trying to change other people. It does nothing but divide us more deeply. No matter how right you think you are, no matter how powerful you believe your reasoning is, you’re not going to be able to change someone who’s deeply invested in a differing view. It doesn’t matter if it’s climate change, diet, politics, gay rights, reproductive rights, religion, racism or anything else. Accept that not everyone agrees with you and stop wasting their time and yours spinning your wheels. We don’t have to shoot one another in the head and throw scorn at those who disagree with us.  We can just walk away, use our energy to work for what we believe in and allow others to do the same.

Photo by tom coe on Unsplash

You don’t have to accept an invitation to fight. You don’t have to read an ugly comment, thread, tweet, twitter or blog. You have a delete button, a trash button and an off button. Use them. If you’re upset by a news story, a meme, an image or a quote, control your media and tech exposure. Make choices about who you engage and discuss with. Block people. Don’t go there. Don’t take it in and don’t pass it on. Find communities in which respectful conversation and debate take place if you want to discuss an issue. Many of us don’t feel safe verbalizing, revealing or defending our views, but everyone can vote with their presence. If you’re uncomfortable or scared in a conversation, leave it. Don’t come back. You can’t stop it, but you don’t have to be a part of it.

Learn to communicate. It’s a powerful tool, and most of us don’t learn how to do it well. Learn to express your thoughts, feelings and opinions in a way that allows others respect and dignity. Learn to listen. You don’t have to agree with people, but that doesn’t mean they have nothing important to say. Take a self-defense class. Don’t forget that most communication is nonverbal. Whoever you are, you have a right to be. Speak up for yourself. Protect yourself with good boundaries. Don’t allow others to make you feel ashamed. Here’s an excellent resource to start with: http://www.cnvc.org/

Root out your assumptions. All white people are not living a life of economic privilege! All patriots are not Christians! All Muslims are not terrorists! All blacks are not criminals! All Latinos are not undocumented immigrants! All men are not rapists! All gay people are not child molesters! All Christians are not militants! First graders think in these black and white ways, not adults. Grow up! We shackle each other with these assumptions.

Please, readers, help me build this list. Help me find things we can do for one another. If you feel disenfranchised for any reason, what would make you feel supported? What can I do or say to send you a message of solidarity? Does the fact that I happen to be white mean I have nothing to offer someone of another race that’s not patronizing? I feel disenfranchised, too! What can we do to help one another understand our respective stories and experiences? What can we teach each other? What does the hand of friendship look like? How can we unify and lend each other our strengths? What works to build healthy connection, and how can we do more of it?

Can any of you suggest organizations to volunteer for, join or find news on? Who is doing work you admire? How can people find candlelight vigils, protests, marches and church-based activities? Not everyone is on or has access to Facebook.

There’s a lot of talk about privilege right now. It’s a slippery term, and I think the perception of privilege is really in the eye of the beholder. Here’s a very interesting little self-test you can take. Some of the questions will help you appreciate the difficulties many people face. In case any one wonders, my score was a 44–NOT privileged, according to this tool. Certainly very privileged in comparison to some people. https://www.buzzfeed.com/regajha/how-privileged-are-you

Allow me to create a resource for positive action and individual empowerment on this blog. Add your voice and ideas to mine. Help me support you, and lend me your support.

Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2016
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted