Oops. That wasn’t what I meant….

Oops. That wasn’t what I meant….

Yesterday I led a webinar that was designed for an audience of students of WisdomWay Institute who have been trained in sensitive, relationship-centered, mindful care of families. Lovely people. I co-led with Sue, with whom I collaborated with seamlessly. I remembered to hit record. We were having a beautiful presentation.

Until slide 18. The image I had chosen for that particular slide was intended to show someone ready to ‘leap’ – a strong woman standing on the edge of a boulder, looking determined, focused and confident. It fit into our conversation around ‘readiness’ in the Change Model. I’m always choosing images for my lectures, courses, webinars. I love the language of what we see, our snap judgments, our primal connection with elements of our natural world, or human expressions. The way that we learn by connecting to as many senses as we can. I got the license for that image right away. Perfect.

But when I clicked during my presentation for the next slide, what was actually on slide 18 was the image of a woman with an enormous semi-automatic rifle in a holster at her side.

Instead of showing an image that would represent someone ready to make an affirming and positive change, I had offered up an image of someone ready to kill something.

It went under my radar. I wasn’t paying attention and the image when I plunked it into the slide was small. It was only when it filled my screen that the gun was front and center.

For some, maybe guns are familiar, associated with grandpa’s hunting cabin in the northwoods, shooting ranges, or video games. Even though it was not actually a hunting firearm, perhaps it wasn’t as vividly out of place for them as it likely was for the majority of the viewers. Given our culture that is grappling with gun-related violence, police brutality, school shootings, war veteran trauma, etc. and etc., there are lots of reasons why the gun would be a stress-inducing flash across the screen. It was clearly out of alignment with an organization with a mission for compassion.

One of the participants that I know personally had actually recently been carjacked at gunpoint. Seriously. Just months ago. I remembered that at 11 pm last night.

Whether or not my slip-up actually caused harm, I may never know. But it did misrepresent what I was intending to communicate. It was not aligned with who I am personally, and it wasn’t aligned with the Institute’s mission.

I failed to see what I was actually doing in attachment to the illusion of what I intended.

And this is why we do what we do in our Centered-Care and mindfulness-based caregiving training. Because that gun may have been just an odd out of context message. But once it flashed on the screen, it was up for the viewer to make sense of why it was there. And just as I’ve always said about herbal or plant –based medicine, if it’s medicine, it might be the right medicine, or the wrong medicine. If I chose an image hoping to have an effect, it won’t matter if my intention was for it to be a beneficial, in this case, uplifting effect. I have to acknowledge that it WILL have an effect.

Just like the words, actions, phrasing, tone of voice, pacing and cadence of our intonations, our body gestures and physical orientation to our clients/patients are things that people during vulnerable moments make sense of. People who have brains that in the best of circumstances are wired to pay close attention to the people who are within their territory and in the worst of circumstances are hours or days out from what may have been a significant trauma. People who have had little to no sleep, who may be in significant pain, and who are keenly observing the valuations of others to see if they might be judged capable of caring for a small human that just arrived in their lives.

“What did she mean by that?”

“Did you see how she’s struggling to acknowledge you as my partner?”

“Did he just roll his eyes?”

“Why is this room filled with images of white folks?”

“Does she think I’m going to be a failure as I mother unless I successfully breastfeed?”

If our clients are building trust with us, just getting to know who we are and how we’re going to hold their vulnerability, their uncertainty, they are also making sense of whether we are going to be able to hold open this vast space known as one’s personal parenting identity, when parenting has long been loaded with roles and mythologies. The concept of parenting has been long chiseled with gender binaries, painted with brushstrokes of our cultural or ethnic identity, modeled by our families, encoded into laws and codes of conduct, measured by neighbors and social workers and lawyers. Parenting is the subject of religious instructions, deified in images as diverse as the Virgin Mary, Kali, the Venus de Willendorf, and the Royal British family.

We have our own personal meaning around parenting, woven from our family wounds and losses, our ancestral tragedies, our miscarriages and stillbirths, our uterine scars, our parent’s expectations or their own disappointments, our failed marriages, our second chances, our cancer survival, our childhood wounds, our sexual trauma. There is nothing more personal than parenting and yet we continue to try to wrangle it into our boxes.

If I am to create truly safe space for someone else’s parenting self to blossom from the place of their own knowing rather than shaped and carved from anything less authentic, than I need to hold this awareness that what may be to me just a picture or a slogan, or a way of talking about parenting, or simple congratulations for making a (right?) choice, may be something entirely different to someone else.

It might be a threatening, confusing, gun. And the woman who is holding it? She’s able-bodied, fairly lean, long curly hair, femme for all her outdoorsy getup. That’s another layer of what we don’t notice. We have to challenge why we think an image, story, experience is relatable. Maybe it’s just what we relate to.

All of our experiences lead us to pay attention to certain things but not to others. As a white lesbian woman who was raised in a certain time, and place, with my own collection of life experiences, I recognize that I pay attention to things that might not be on the radar of one who is a POC, or younger, or older, or who has immigrated, or uses a wheelchair and that what’s on their radar is not always on mine. We may share many things, but it’s only by accepting that we don’t know, by setting aside our armor of expert, by creating the environment that makes true communication possible, that we start to build connections to our shared humanity. We need to expand our radars, tune them to hold awareness of stories not our own. But first, we need to really see our own radar and know what it’s made of. To see if it’s built of our privilege, our opportunities, our faith tradition, our own stories.

We can’t change what we can’t see. And we can’t see so many things about how we relate to others, how we communicate, until we have trained ourselves to pay attention and to see beyond our own emotions, reactions, habits, and conditioning.

We won’t be able to fully inhabit another’s view of the world, but we can begin to challenge our own assumptions, we can train ourselves to pay attention, compassionately and curiously, to what our habits are. We can start to understand our own experiences in the world as a road map to compassionately begin to understand that of others. We can slow down and notice what words we choose, how we may have subtly shut down to someone, how much we are doing our work in autopilot, and how we are or aren’t creating a patient, open, safe, and empowering environment in which to serve those who rely on us for healthcare.

We need to move beyond conceptual learning of Trauma-Informed Care, and Relationship-Centered Care and we need to go much further to undo our racism, our ableism. We need to embody a deeper compassion and this, this takes patience, and practice, and paying attention.

I didn’t even see that gun, but it was what I put out there. Now that I can see it, acknowledge it, only now I can consciously decide if it’s helpful or harmful.

If I say, who cares? I’m hiding behind the privilege of my world.

I don’t know if I’ll find the right image for slide #18.

But this, this experience of humility and acknowledgement, of a willingness to step outside of our comfort zone, to expand our view of what good care looks like… this is what ‘readiness to change’ looks like.

Karen Laing is a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Teacher with experience in trauma and caregiving. She's spent the last 25 years supporting families through major life transitions such as birth and postpartum care.

She founded Birthways over 20 years ago to support expectant families and provide training and support for birthworkers. She created WisdomWay as a means to continue supporting all caregivers with mindfulness-based training and certifications. She speaks nationwide on mindfulness, parenting, caregiving, and mental health.