Intimate Mutual Support

By Wade Hudson

New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World -- and How to Make It Work for You by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms describes new approaches to social change. In the second chapter, the authors highlight a key issue: identity. When an individual’s sense of self is based on top-down “old power,” it’s hard to engage in collaborative “new power.”

In discussing an internal conflict at NASA, the space agency, Heimans and Timms report that one group

had what we call old power values. They came from a world with clear boundaries between “us” and “them,”... This group believed deeply in the value of expertise. Their own identities grew out of a tradition that venerated individual moments of genius….

Another group affirmed Open Innovation, a collaborative practice. That method threatened the “core identity” of the old-power group. When a researcher asked members of that group about Open Innovation, they often didn’t answer the question. They only talked about themselves, their training, and their accomplishments. They were self-centered.

This report reflects a critical reality. Subjective gut reactions, emotions, beliefs, norms and values shape behavior. Habitual thoughts and feelings call for careful self-examination. We can strengthen our effectiveness by undoing some of our conditioning. If we change ourselves, we can better change the world.

Transform the System: A Work in Progress (a booklet I wrote that’s available on Amazon for $4 and online) addresses this issue. Far too often, in our inner world, we:

  • Focus on the outer world and neglect the non-material, or spiritual.
  • Avoid critical self-examination and don’t work enough on our self-development.
  • Minimize our own responsibility and scapegoat others.
  • Are judgmental toward others and ourselves.
  • Let our anger get the best of us.
  • Assume we’re essentially superior human beings.
  • Label others, place them in boxes, and keep them there.
  • Identify primarily with our tribe and forget our common humanity.
  • React to others based on their skin color, gender, or some other arbitrary physical characteristic.
  • Dwell in the realm of ideas and neglect feelings.
  • Discriminate against people who have less education or income.
  • Envy and resent those who have more education or income.
  • Stereotype people who live in a different region of the country.
  • Don’t try to better understand those who disagree with us.
  • Are unable to agree to disagree and still communicate fruitfully.
  • Assume some one person must always be in charge.
  • Are too concerned about our self-interest and our family’s.
  • Are convinced we have the final answer.
  • Are unable to see many sides to the same issue.

Those tendencies contribute to the perpetuation of our dominant social system. Our institutions, our culture, and we ourselves as individuals are woven together into a self-perpetuating social system, the System. The outer world shapes our inner world, and our inner world shapes the outer world. The primary purpose of the System is to enable individuals to gain more status, wealth, and power over others by climbing social ladders.

The social, public, outer realm is distinct from the personal, intimate, inner realm, which is often private and confidential. An “intimate” is a very close friend with whom we discuss personal matters.

People are often guarded for good reason. Those who hold authority can punish if they don’t like what they hear or see. Even good friends can be mean. Feelings can be disruptive.

So we build walls to protect ourselves. Being secretive becomes a habit. We grow thin skin. Fear that we can’t handle hostility and criticism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a downward spiral.

Many community-based projects deal with the social world. Those efforts include conflict resolution, restorative justice, active listening, social and ecological responsibility, nonviolent communication, public education, and political action to impact public policy. They focus on behavior.

Some projects deal with the personal world. Those include unlearning racism, self-help, spiritual, and psychotherapy projects. They focus on inner experience.

But very few projects integrate the personal and the social by nurturing open-ended intimate mutual support for whatever issues individuals want to address. Even less common are projects that do so within a political worldview that seeks systemic transformation.

Political activists who focus on public policies and behavior typically fail to examine critically their own thoughts and feelings. Integrating personal, social, and political change, however, could lead to a mutually reinforcing upward spiral. Personal transformation could contribute to political transformation.

How to strengthen ourselves and become more open and intimate is not easy. There’s no magic bullet.

The first step is to recognize the need. Then perhaps we can develop ways to advance systemic transformation -- and support one another in that effort. Readers are encouraged to share ideas about methods, structures, and formats to help achieve that goal.