We Must Choose: Fragility Born From Power-Over Or Robustness Born From Power With

“So…what now? We need an antidote—something we can apply to this wound. What is the antidote to fragility? It is this—robustness. Robustness is the opposite of the fragile legacy colonization has created. Robustness recognizes we are each a part of a living breathing whole – we always belong, we are never ever alone and therefore we are ultimately profoundly safe.” 

– Kelly Wendorf

I’m not sure who fired the first shot – nature or humanity. But somewhere long ago a great rift happened between humans and nature. Most say humans were the bad guys, that we got all uppity and decided to be greedy jerks and just take everything at any cost despite the gracious, generous, and abundant caring from mother earth. But some researchers have a slightly more compassionate lens. They say that long ago in our prehistory, nature took some turn––a drought, a catastrophic event of some kind––that breached our sacred agreement (at least from the perspective of the humans) to take care of one another. Once that breach occurred, we became scared and set about trying to control things.

Fast forward a few thousand years and we know that colonization––also born from some historic trauma and then violently externalized onto others––created the idea of ‘race’ and ‘other’, by separating humanity into various parts and parcels upon which to wield its oppressive weapons. It didn’t stop there. With colonization came the idea of a God, and an assemblage of colonial impulses and concepts including human exceptionalism, linear time models, the anointment of mankind and his material realm and ultimately the belief that we are separate from and superior to nature.

Did we invent such a tyrannical system because somewhere we became afraid? Because we lost trust in a larger cosmic intelligence? Probably. Perhaps at our deepest heart, we never intended this outcome we find ourselves in today. We didn’t start out dark and evil. Perhaps due to some catastrophic event somewhere in our shared ancestry we were just scared out of our better senses. 

Yes, while sociopathic personalities take refuge in and further drive the fallout we’ve created, perhaps it was not sociopathy that started us out on the wrong foot, but merely terror. And from that terror we invented things: religion, dogma, orthodoxy, anthropocentricity and servitude. Whether it started with colonialism, or probably more likely even long before that, the point is that we are now on a collision course with annihilation because we do not experience ourselves as belonging to and a part of nature, as nature itself.

When I consider all I wrote above, I am saddened. I think about how lost humans have become all because we were traumatized. And I think about how nature must feel about it all. My teacher, the Custodial Elder of Uluru, ‘Uncle’ Bob Randall, told me once, “Nature misses us.” Really? I would think to myself in response. We’ve done such horrible things to nature. Why in the hell would she miss us? Many believe the earth is better off without us. Yet that shame-based thinking, while possibly socially accepted, also comes from the colonized view that we are separate. In listening to Uncle Bob’s reframe, I feel a deeper relationship that has been ruptured. One in which a beloved yearns for the other. Given that we are indeed interconnected in one web of wholeness, what would one do in absence of the other?

Kelly Wendorf with Uncle Bob Randall, an elder “Tjilpi” of the Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal Nation, and listed traditional owner of Uluru, the great monolith in the Central Australian Desert. Uncle Bob passed in 2015. His writings are feature in Kelly’s book, Belonging. Watch his Kanyini documentary here.

While all our strategies to solve the problems of our world today are essential, I believe that we must be able to hold two frames open at once––the frame that we must do something as the human race to undo what we’ve caused to the sacred ‘other’, and the frame that we are in fact that which we are destroying. If we knew that our anthropocentric concepts of separation, linear time, rational thinking, our mastery over the material realm and human superiority were indeed the problem itself, how then might we seek to change things differently? I cannot imagine that any approach we take through an anthropocentric mindset would help us solve anything at all. So where do we start? 

Uncle Bob said, “That belief that we are separate [from nature], and that we don’t belong makes us weak.” I spent hours with Uncle Bob in dialog about what he precisely meant by this statement. What he meant by the word ‘weak’ was the concept of ‘fragile’. We are fragile.  

He didn’t mean fragile as in ‘delicate’, ‘tenuous’ or ‘vulnerable’––for indeed all organisms are fragile. Life itself is fragile. He meant fragile as in a weakened human state of mind and spirit that believes itself to be solitary, separate, and individual. Such a state renders one defensive, hostile, shut down, incurious, cynical, self-centered, and playing the victim. 

I believe the first step towards real systemic change must first start as an inside job with every individual. And that inside job is to recognize our fragility. It’s something each and every one of us can do, and to do so would make a huge impact on our other endeavors in every area of life. When we heal our fragility, our systems, policies and strategies to heal the earth will be on the mark.

Allow me to explore with you the way fragility operates. Fragility is born from a power-over mindset. I know it might seem a contradiction that fragility is an expression of power-over. Let me explain. This mindset is born from some trauma that would provoke a psychology away from a secure and truly empowered power-with and power-to mindset and towards a defensive posture of power-over.

Power-over mindsets can only see two options: to be the prey or to be the predator. It is a rigid win-lose, right-wrong, good-bad binary that uses power to subvert and oppress in order that they not be subverted or oppressed themselves. If this mindset perceives itself as not winning, then it is losing. If it is not seen as good, then it is bad. If it is not preying on, it is the prey. Hence fragility can come across as bombastic, grandiose and violent, like Mr. Trump. Or fragility can come across as victimized, helpless, pathetic and obtuse, like Woody Allen. 

The key is seeing both the power-over (and privilege) that Allen’s victimized stance provides him, and seeing the fragility (and frailty) of the Trump façade. By design, both are abusive because they seek to control outcomes.

We all have the capacity to operate from a power-over (aka fragile) place. When we’re highly triggered or stressed our reptilian brains take over the show and we lurch into fight, flight, freeze and appease. And some operate from power-over as their main default. In my essay Suffocating Racism, I describe at length how our own internalized oppression can keep us from seeing how it is levied against us and others. Because we are products of a colonized system, none of us are immune to being fragile. It’s a big wake up to see how it operates in our lives.

Fragility’s Rules of Engagement:

I have a supreme right to emotional comfort – this is the foundational premise on which fragility operates and it sounds like this:

      How, when and where you give me feedback needs to keep me feeling safe and not threaten me in any way. If you use the wrong tone, tell me in the wrong circumstances, then your feedback is invalid.

      You must be as indirect as possible. Directness is cruel and unkind and will not only render your requests or feedback invalid but will require a repair afterwards.

My intention trumps the impact I had on you:

       If you share impact with me about how I may have hurt you, but it was not my intention to hurt you then you are wrong and need to apologize.

      You need to see me as a good person, or else.

      You need to acknowledge my intentions (always good) and by doing so you acknowledge my good intentions cancels out the impact my behavior had on you.

      I also have the right to tell you all the ways you have hurt me [this is called ‘equalizing’ and ‘derailing’] and they must matter as much or more.

My defensiveness is right:

      If I am defensive, it is because you are attacking me and you need to apologize. 

      I am defensive because I am misunderstood. You need to allow me to explain myself until you can acknowledge it was your misunderstanding.

      If I am smarter than you and use words and concepts to out-argue you, I win.

My emotional safety is paramount:

      By safety, I really mean comfort, but I won’t ever acknowledge that.

      I get to tell you that you are making me feel unsafe when you are pushing me past my comfort zone. And you get to then apologize and back down.

My truth is the truth:

      I get to levy my world, my beliefs and my values on you. To further convince you, I will make you doubt your own [this is called ‘gaslighting’]. 

      I am spiritually superior so I will use wise spiritual concepts, like ‘we are all one’ or ‘that was in the past’ to deny your reality of being oppressed [this is called ‘gaslightenment’].

      Any questioning of my world view, my values, my habits and beliefs is threatening, unsafe and therefore invalid.

My double standards are just standards:

      I get to make you feel genuinely unsafe – emotionally and physically – and then say you need to push past your comfort zones, grow up, and stop being such a whiner.

      I get to yell, scream, rage, throw things, intimidate, and threaten, but don’t you dare use a ‘tone’ on me.

      I get to be late, but I’ll fire you if you are.

Nothing is my fault and life is hard:

      If I’m late, it’s because of traffic. If something goes wrong, it’s because of something or someone else.

      I am victimized by a hostile world that doesn’t understand me, doesn’t do what I want, doesn’t work around my schedule or my needs.

      Can’t you see how hard all this is on me? What about me and my needs?

      I’ve been oppressed (bullied, abused, violated) too, you know! [this is called ‘equalizing’ and ‘derailing’]

If like me, you see yourself in some of the above tactics, great awareness and therefore great work. And you also may suddenly realize what’s at work in someone else you know…a co-worker, a boss, a beloved. Like fish in water, we often don’t see the Fragility Rules of Engagement because it’s just the water we’ve been swimming in. 

So…what now? We need an antidote––something we can apply to this wound. What is the antidote to fragility? It is this––robustness. Robustness is the opposite of the fragile legacy colonization has created. Robustness recognizes we are each a part of a living breathing whole – we always belong, we are never ever alone and therefore we are ultimately profoundly safe. 

Robustness resolutely stands strong in the face of fragility’s supreme demand for comfort. It sees self and other as robust and therefore not in need of pandering, caretaking, pleasing, rescuing or fixing. Robustness is open to feedback, accountable to impact and curious about different world views. Robustness is willing to be broken open and normalizes discomfort.

In his book Consolations, poet and philosopher David Whyte writes this on robustness:

To be robust is to be physically or imaginatively present in the very firm presence of something or someone else. Being robust means we acknowledge the living current in something other than ourselves. Robustness is a measure of the live frontier in a conversation, whether it is a physical conversation in a wrestling match, a good exchange of ideas in the classroom or a marital argument in the kitchen. Without robustness all relationships become defined by their fragility, wither and begin to die. To be robust is to attempt something beyond the perimeter of our own constituted identity; to get beyond our thoughts or the edge of our own selfishness. Robustness and vulnerability belong together. To be robust is to show a willingness to take collateral damage, to put up temporary pain, noise, chaos or our systems being temporarily undone. 

Robustness’s Rules of Engagement:

Discomfort is the realm of growth:

      I know how to fully feel and metabolize all my feelings, and when I do, I gain new insights about me and the world.

      I look forward to feeling uncomfortable and other areas where discomfort arises such as conflict, delivering feedback, setting boundaries, and saying ‘no’.

      I do not avoid making you feel uncomfortable if going there is important for our growth.

      Listening, grappling, processing, becoming aware of hard things and sincere apology for impact (without justifying or explaining) are all in the realm of discomfort and I engage in them fully.

I am open to feedback:

      I realize how much courage it takes to give me feedback and so I am grateful.

      Because you are being brave to give me feedback, then you can do it any way and in any place at any time. 

      I see that you give me feedback because you trust me and care for me.

      I resist the temptation to live in the good-bad, right-wrong, win-lose power-over paradigm and therefore it is ok if I make a mistake or do something wrong or if you see me as hurtful right now. I can be brave enough to face that.

I am emotionally masterful:

      I know the difference between genuine emotional safety and comfort. I honor and protect the former and do not pander to, rescue or protect the later.

      I feel and own all my feelings and do not label them as good / bad, right / wrong. 

      I honor the feelings of others. 

My defensiveness is a signal:

      I know I’m slipping into some shame pattern if I become defensive and use defensiveness as a signal to reconsider my mindset and come from a power-with and power-to position instead.

      I am not intimidated by other’s defensiveness and instead lean into discomfort if that is what serves us best.

How I impact the world is important to me:

      Knowing how I impact others helps me to love and care for others better.

      I learn more about me (and about you) when I learn about my impact.

      If I’ve done something hurtful, I am not a bad person, I’ve simply mis-attuned or mis-calculated.

      Sharing impact with me takes courage therefore I am grateful to you, thank you.

There are billions of truths and perspectives:

      Knowing that there are as many perspectives and truths out there as there are people, I am curious about your reality.

      I welcome your different views, values and beliefs as they nudge me to grow.

Golden Rule:

      I treat you the way I want to be treated.

      I adhere to the same standards and expectations I have of you.

I take 100% responsibility for my life:

      If I’m late, it’s because I did not leave in time to account for the traffic.

      If something happens outside of my control, I am responsible for how I respond to that.

      What is the part I played in this challenge / mistake / problem?

      If I missed a deadline (or didn’t call back, etc) it’s because I had another priority that I made more important and I own that.

Uncle Bob’s people––the Yankunytjatjara––have a philosophy called Kanyini. Kanyini is based on the unconditional premise that we are one with the natural world…not better, not worse, not separate. The rocks are literally our siblings and the trees and rivers our relations. They speak to us in a subtle frequency of belonging through a shared sense of beingness. If you stop and be quietly present, you can feel it. It’s the livingness that is our common thred. 

Kanyini means unconditional love with responsibility. Our responsibility is fueled not by fragility, that only serves to separate and ultimately destroy us, but by our robustness. I am beginning to take a stand for robustness, not only in myself but in others. If I sense fragility in myself or another, instead of backing down, I lean into it and call forth another way. It’s ruffling some feathers and rocking some boats. But I don’t see another option and it’s absolutely the one thing I can do to show up in a world in trouble. Will you join me? 

With thanks to Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

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