Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What We Know and Don't Know

by Miki Kashtan

A week ago Sunday, a friend sent me a link to a story about Time Magazine covers. According to the article, the magazine has different covers for its US edition as compared to its three other editions (Europe, Asia, South Pacific): the former focus on personal issues and feelings while the latter on international events of significance. Although the assertion itself has been questioned by some who commented on the story, this story sparked some conversations and reflections for me that led to my deciding to make it this week’s topic. 

At the time of receiving this link, I was leading a retreat. Later that same day I led a session in which I described some of my vision and thoughts about money and resource allocation. Little did I know that, in the end, an interaction I had during this session would lead to my having more understanding about the significance of this difference in cover stories.

During this session I explained how, in order to be able to develop a vision I take pains to create a critical distance within myself from the context within which I live so I can reflect on it sufficiently to see it. This is my intuitive understanding of what Karl Marx did in order to create his analysis of capitalism. As part of this, I have made a point for years now of not collecting coupons. I know that being able to make this choice is a form of privilege that those who live in poverty cannot take on. I do it as a way to distance myself from the repeated exposure of my nervous system to the idea that getting things for less money is the most important thing in life.

In the midst of my description, which felt both vulnerable and passionate, I learned that someone heard my story as criticism and became defensive. This person, whom I will call Mel, is someone I have known for years, for whom I have deep affection and whom I consider a friend.

This is not by far the first time I am heard as judging when I don’t experience myself inside as judging. It’s not that I don’t ever judge people. I definitely do. Rather, it’s that I am seen as judging way more often than I actually am judging people. Although many people didn’t hear a judgment, Mel was far from the only one.

What I felt at the time was a level of acute anguish and despair, which included two intertwined strands. One was the experience itself, the gap between what I saw and felt and how I act, and what Mel, my sweet friend, saw and felt and how he acts. The helplessness about how to invite people into seeing what I see as happening in the world is so deep I sometimes don’t even know how to breathe fully when I experience it. Is there a way in which I can support Mel in seeing that his choices about what he buys and how much of it are affecting people he doesn't even know? How could I speak to him and invite him to see that there is an ongoing structural connection between the many millions like him who are accustomed to getting cheap merchandise, and the many other millions who manufacture those same products in conditions that would make the shoppers shudder if they knew them?

The other strand of the experience of despair was about my own inability to speak without creating alienation. After the session was over, I sat and wailed with a few people just to come back to my sense of self, to regain my strength and faith. As is often the case when I get to cry so fully and with so much support, my heart opened much wider, my sense of separation was diminished, and I had a profound insight about the nature of this alienation. 

As I sat and savored the togetherness with the people who supported me, all of whom understood intuitively what I had been talking about to Mel, I felt the aloneness dissipate. It’s truly rare for me to have a complete reprieve from the experience of being alone, and I allowed it to wash all over me, to feed my nervous system that is not catching up with the realization that I have more and more people in my life with whom I experience true companionship and alignment.

I realized, then, that the more I can savor that sense of alignment with some, the less likely I am to appear to others as separate and judgmental. This is because I bring with me an unacknowledged hunger for companionship, for people to join my vision, and that inner agitation is likely part of what I protect by continuing to focus on and articulate what is different between me and others instead of seeing and capitalizing on the unity and commonality.

While digesting this understanding, I was overtaken by another wave of shocking grief about how much people don't know. That was when I had my second insight which allowed me to reconnect fully with Mel. Simply put, relative to what we each see and know, we act with the most integrity possible in each moment. This is not the abstract “everyone does the best they can.” This was personal and specific, based on knowing him. That was how I found the strikingly simple unity between me and Mel. 

Later that evening I connected the dots between my interaction with Mel and the story about the Time covers. As I see it, and I am sure others would disagree with me, these covers are part of a larger effort designed to ensure that people in the US won’t easily know about the effects of their actions.

In parallel with stretching to find my commonality with Mel, I was engaging with another friend, let’s call him Daniel, to whom I had forwarded the story about the Time covers. Daniel was at the other end of the challenge, barely able to grasp that it truly is that much of an accomplishment for anyone in the US to find a way to know what the consequences of their actions are. Daniel wasn’t settled with my description of Mel, and helped me remember that care is not just a feeling; that care translates into action. In this case, the action he so wants people in the US to take is to examine and inquire into the nature of poverty, both in the US and globally, and staying with it until they find the information.

What, I wonder, has been done to people in this country to leave them so unable to engage in precisely this kind of care?

I am reminded of a moment when I was involved with homeless activism in Berkeley in the late 1980s. One night I was called to witness a particularly painful event of the police rousing people who were sleeping in People’s Park. Many people were there in this big commotion. At one point I was standing close to the city manager who was getting back into his car. I caught the moment and asked him: “What will you be telling yourself tonight when you get into a warm bed knowing that so many people don't have a place to sleep tonight?” His response, while continuing to move and barely looking at me was: “That I am very fortunate.” Speaking in terms of fortune makes invisible the connections between his life and that of the homeless people, as if the fact of him having more resources is divorced from systems that perpetuate wealth gaps that are sometimes hard to even grasp conceptually. 

I don’t have to go very far to have personal knowledge about being in the dark about the connections between things. Growing up in Israel, a big part of what was being masked was the connection between specific decisions made by the leadership of the Zionist movement and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

I remember reading a publication by some government agency called something like “Know how to Respond,” which gave the official answers to various questions that critics of Israeli policy could potentially ask. I remember vividly being impressed with the answers and critical of those who would be posing the questions. It took active and specific efforts, connections with specific people, before I could even conceive of there being other ways of seeing the world. I had to muster immense courage to walk from the thick tapestry of common knowledge to the frayed edges of doubt, questioning, where I could possibly be shunned and definitely would be standing up to an entire culture that I still felt part of.

Even after I stopped believing those myths, I still believed what I now consider to be the myths about the US. I remember, growing up, a close family friend whom I completely adored, a European-trained intellectual who was generally despairing about things, with a flair of high culture added to it. I asked him, more than once, whether there was anything he believed in. He said, always: "Yes, the United States of America." His answer left a mark on me for years, to the point of ringing in my ears a decade later when I was making my decision to leave Israel. I really believed I was coming to live in the stronghold of democracy. Even after waking up to the role that Israel was playing in the region, enough to where I wanted to leave because I didn't want to have certain things done in my name, I still believed what I had been told about the United States of America. It took several more years for me to repeat the feat of questioning to the point of losing that faith.

Reviewing my own personal history from the vantage point of my current views and understanding of what happens in the world adds to my compassion. I think maybe I have at least part of the answer to the question of how this continues to happen. It seems to me that three things combine to make it so unlikely for people to become aware of and take personal responsibility for what is done in their name in this country: 1) Massive and active campaigns to keep people from knowing by making the information not as easily available and by discrediting information consistently; 2) an ongoing and pervasive stress that everyone in this country seems to be in (me, too); 3) and fear, just raw fear that I think feeds the lack of awareness, fear that there is so much to lose, or some fundamental sense of deep scarcity.

As someone who so often alienates people when attempting to invite awareness and companionship, I am very humble in this moment about what any of us who have shifted our gaze and now see things we may not have seen in the past can do to support others in seeing the same. I am grateful to all who have faith in me and continue to call my attention to all the ways I continue to assert difference instead of commonality. I don’t yet see how to talk about privilege in a way that those with it would not be defensive and those without it would hear in my words sufficient acknowledgment of their experience. I know that I want to find it, because I see it as essential if I want to play a significant part in bringing about change in the world towards more people’s needs being attended to all over the world.

Note: Miki is taking a break for the next few weeks from holding teleseminars about her blog posts.


  1. I don't think that you are judging other people, but I do think that you view yourself as being smarter and more skilled than most other people. People pick up on this and they respond in the same way as if you are judging them. And in an indirect way, it is a judgment of them by contrast to how highly you regard yourself.

    1. Dear Anonymous,

      I resonate very much with how you percieved Miki's words. for me it was these words from the last paragraph; "... us who have shifted our gaze and now see things we may not have seen in the past can do to support others in seeing the same."

      When I read that message, I felt a small release of tension inside. Tension coming from not really understanding the struggle Miki describes. These words brought me clarity, like - Aaahh, now I get it, that's why :-)

      It's just another way of supporting an idea of "us and them". This idea seems to be the origin of most of the violence, I encounter and intercepts. However, I find myself supporting that idea myself guite often, and everytime I do that it get's in the way of my desire to support peace, love and compassion. Good learning.

      None the less, I really love Miki's energy in her efforts to support equallity and justice. Good luck!

      with compassion,

    2. Once there was a person named Millie. She was relaxing in a warm, comfortable space, being cared for by someone she loved and trusted. Everything seemed fine, but she gradually became aware of a little discomfort in her chest. Suddenly she woke up, and realized she had been asleep under anesthesia and there was a surgeon standing over her, cutting up her heart and eating it.

      Feeling shock and pain and panic, she looked around, and realized there were other tables in the operating room, and other sleeping people whose hearts were being consumed. She jumped up and ran from table to table, trying to wake people from their drugged sleep. Some people woke readily, looked around, and joined her in trying to wake the others. Some resisted, preferring their dream to the terrifying reality. Some were so deeply asleep nothing Millie or the others did could wake them.

      Others may disagree, but I don’t think Millie feels superior to the people she is trying to wake up, only gratitude that her metabolism broke the anesthesia down before her heart was completely gone, and a terrible urgency to awaken as many people as she could. I don’t think she sees them as separate from herself, but that she is a sleeper like the others, only now awake, shaken to consciousness herself by someone who had awakened earlier.

      Being jolted from sleep into an awareness of the violent cruelty which is the pervading structure of our way of life is a painful, consciousness-changing event. People resist. They push the shaker away. If you were Millie, how would you go about waking us up?


  2. “In the midst of my description, which felt both vulnerable and passionate, I learned that someone heard my story as criticism and became defensive.”

    Miki, I receive this experience and lesson often. My intention is to offer my critical views on something for which I have a concern and a felt responsibility. Still, if I don’t concern myself with how my listeners or readers will receive what I offer, it will often strike them as a criticism of them personally. It happened to me only a week or so ago when I offered feedback on a draft of a fundraising letter. My wife even warned me about my approach to offering my thoughts, but I still failed. I think my quick and sincere apology helped heal the wounds I had inflicted.

    As regards the specific example you related what strikes me is the following. Miki, you said or were thinking: “I do it [choose not to use coupons] as a way to distance myself from the repeated exposure of my nervous system to the idea that getting things for less money is the most important thing in life.” I think Mel, who may likely choose to use coupons on some occasions, was affected by the hyperbole that suggested that he might be thought of by you as a person who values “getting things for less money” as “the most important thing in life.” Perhaps on a different day, Mel may have not been triggered the way you described--who could say? The potential, however, was there. Consider a different manner and attitude of communicating the same idea but with less “passionate” wording. This comes to mind: For some time I have been experimenting with eschewing the use of coupon discounts, in order to reinforce in myself that other values need consideration aside from the item’s price when choosing what to purchase.

    1. Dear Ron,

      Thank you for this comment. It helps me understand some of the subtler nuances of how I create unwanted distance. Like I said in an earlier comment you may have not seen, I often focus on contrast as a way to reach clarity. I now see that the cost can be pretty high. I want to learn and learn again to express full passion just based on what I want.

      I appreciate what I experienced as a lot of gentleness in your comment. Thank you for that.


  3. You are my hero. Love to you, Mel, and myself.

  4. Hey everyone! so many words for something that is SO OBVIOUS! the U.S. is the wealthiest country that Planet Earth has every known. This reality is BIG! There is NO FREE LUNCH. If people choose not to acknowledge the obvious it is their choice. I don't think this has much to do with NVC. Sometimes it is just too painful to acknowledge that we are all in SO DEEP! To some degree there is really no way out of this economic reality. Personally, I find it helpful to acknowledge the obvious truths of life - also with regard to the incredible BEAUTY of the planet and it's incredible life forms, richness and diversity....also the beauty of Art and Creativity! AND the wonderful techniques that have been developed by the NVC practitioners to help us communicate more compassionately!!! (p.s. I have also spent some 20 years living as a Jew in Israel and am familiar with the collective myth making that goes on there. In my opinion, it helps to acknowledge what is 'happening' as apposed to what one is being told to think. This goes for both sides of any conflict.) - L. Winestock

  5. Thank you Miki for trying to be so authentic in this confusing and transitioning world .
    In the last century an old wise woman of the Cree Indian nation, named “Eyes of Fire”, had a vision of the future:

    She prophesied that one day, because of the white man’s’ greed, there would come a time, when the earth would be ravaged and polluted, the forests would be destroyed, the birds would fall from the air, the waters would be blackened, the fish would be poisoned in the streams, the trees would become sick, and mankind as we would know it would all but cease to exist.
    Then the Indians would regain their spirit and gather people of all nations, colors and beliefs to join together in the fight to save the Earth. A time of awakening would come, when all the peoples of all the tribes and races would form a New World of Justice, Peace, Freedom — and recognition of the Great Spirit. These would be the Rainbow Warriors.”

    This prophecy was also told to Native author, Jamie Sams, by two Kiowa Grandmothers in Mexico, who call it the Cradleboard Prophecy…they also told of the emergence of thousands of Rainbow Warriors of both genders, who will assist in manifesting the dream of the Fifth World of Peace.

  6. How many times is the word "I" use? Seven times in one paragraph!! Does she ever say what she wants?"
    I have a dream that someday NVC trainers will be self-connected (instead of "distancing myself" ) and SHOW me what they are feeling and needing, I'm so sick of words. Show me.

    1. Dear Mickey,

      I am grateful for the reminder and invitation to be ever clearer and more direct about what I want. Although in my self-understanding I did speak to what I want and am trying to do, I can see it wasn't clear enough to you and likely to others as well.

      Sometimes I know that I express what I want at least in part through contrast. I hope to manage more of the time to be crystal clear about what it is that I want. In this case: to reach a level of clarity that supports more and more people to understand me.

      Thanks again,


  7. Miki, thanks for the companionship in the complex challenge of both learning to teach our brains / nervous systems that there is enough, and to open our hearts and minds to the reality that our planet is facing some serious problems. Not always easy for me to hold the two at the same time, or to meet people who are committed to both.

  8. Miki, the trend in the Time magazine covers resonates with my experience at an international conference on communication and conflict I attended this year. The presenters shared perspectives that left me dumbfounded: for instance, that many Somali "pirates" do not even know what piracy is, that the clan structure in Iraq is an essential force for stability, and that at least one tribe in Africa--which lives entirely in the deep jungle--has no sense of the "obvious" fact that size recedes with distance. I think of myself as fairly well read across cultural contexts, but clearly I'm wrong...and I suspect many, many of us Americans fall into that category.

    As for the reasons behind the covers themselves, I would also suggest two others: 4) Americans' culture of individualism--a massive piece of our cultural history--which too easily shades into self-absorption, and 5) the American imperative toward relentless optimism, and a corresponding desire not to look too closely into extremely complex world problems. This sounds critical (and to some extent I mean it that way), but I am also aware that these cultural attributes have their upside: individualism and optimism can also translate into a dedication to liberty and a spirit of innovation.

  9. Hello Miki,

    I'm taking time today to read some entries. I haven't been keeping up with your blog, so there's a backlog for me to explore.

    I'm not sure what to say about this entry other than yes. Yes, these are areas of thought. Yes, we are guided toward certain ways of thinking and kinds of blindness. Yes, it is hard to speak of some things without offending others. Yes, I wonder about this in different ways. Yes, it seems important that we change the way resources and labor are done, as the current way involves poverty, painful toil, and shame for so many.

    One particular piece of this situation that my attention has been drawn to is that companies are expected to act in ways that individuals would not be expected to act. There is an expectation that morality for a company is centered on making a profit. It is expected that companies are willing to pollute, poison, and cause various kinds of harm and pain. In fact many companies do work that has pain and harm as (to me it seems) central parts of their work. I think of this from time to time, and wonder about how we manage such an idea.

    I hope you will write more about all the parts of this, or some of them.