The Maya were experts in thinking critically about our relationship with time. Their calendars demonstrate sophisticated knowledge around the intersections of cyclical rhythms found among the stars, on the Earth and within our bodies.
In Part 1 of this series we looked at the significance of establishing right relations across Black and Indigenous communities and how those relationships disempower White supremacy. In Part 2: Traumatized People Traumatize People we discussed how groups, organizations and communities are reflections of the individuals within them. Individuals who don’t heal their traumas act them out in their relationships. At the same time, we will never be perfectly healed human beings free of the impacts of trauma and other stressors. No one escapes life’s ups and downs, and these leave their mark on us. So, what makes for Right Relations?
The challenge to forging mutually satisfying relationships of any kind isn’t about becoming completely “healed”, it’s in becoming resilient, adaptable, and self-exploratory. It stands to reason that mutually beneficial relationships between communities are sustained by the same behaviors that make interpersonal relationships rewarding.
When we look at the research, we understand that emotional maturity contributes to relational wellness. Obviously, folks who are self-involved, irresponsible, insecure, competitive, unforgiving, judgmental and so on don’t make good friends, co-workers, bosses or life partners. However, with experience and effort we can become emotionally mature: self-aware, responsible, respectful, resilient, forgiving, compassionate, accepting, etc. According to the research, the more people grow and practice these qualities the more likely they will experience fulfilling and sustainable relationships. So, clearly, one of the keys to deepening relationship at the level of groups, organizations and communities is for individuals within groups to take responsibility for their own emotional maturity.
What self-help literature doesn’t speak to are the impacts of critical thinking on relationships. Our justice and decolonial movements have been very good at teaching us how to think critically, particularly when it comes to anti-oppressive frameworks. Anti-oppression theory trains us to look for, analyze and critique power dynamics in all relationships. It trains us to understand how the power dynamics of the past inform today’s injustices. We learn how historical and pop culture narratives justify, rationalize and reinforce injustice. Anti-O trains us to be vigilant about how we have internalized forms of inequality like White supremacy, colonialism, patriarchy, queerphobia, ableism, human superiority, etc. As a result, we expect each other to challenge unhealthy dynamics whenever and wherever we find them, whether these show up within ourselves or out in the world.
With anti-O we can be legitimately angry, while we encourage each other to allow that anger to fuel our work. Furthermore, anti-O has us challenging each other to be transparent and accountable for all of it. It’s exhausting. And we’re allowed to be exhausted but we’re not allowed to give up because, once we are aware, we are responsible to and for each other.
Today’s Positive Psychology is built on ideas that many Black and Indigenous healing traditions already knew: you create more of what you focus on and when you dwell on the negative it’s measurably harmful to your wellness, including your relationship wellness.
Critical thinking is crucial to our survival. Without it we wouldn’t be able to make decisions, evaluate or reason. Critical ideas can also inform our creativity. But is it possible that an emphasis on critical thinking to the detriment of other ideas can negatively impact our relationships? Is it possible that Anti-O skills, tools & resources can be more weapons than medicine in the hands of people who have not done enough healing work? Does a preoccupation with critical thinking limit our capacity to dream and create the kind of relationships we desire with each other?
The Maya were experts in thinking critically about our relationship with time. Their calendars demonstrate sophisticated knowledge around the intersections of cyclical rhythms found among the stars, on the Earth and within our bodies. Their astronomical and mathematical skills enabled them to predict the impact of cosmological alignments far into the future. One concept the Maya offers us is the idea of being stuck in time: being so fixated on past events that they determine how we experience the present moment and inhibit our sense of optimism about the future.
How often do we dwell on events that took place decades if not hundreds of years ago (or yesterday?), rerunning the story, fine-tuning, expanding, and feeling the intense emotions it evokes? We do this over and over, even when we are now in a completely new moment that demands a different response than we are offering because we are reacting to past events.
Today’s Positive Psychology is built on ideas that many Black and Indigenous healing traditions already knew: you create more of what you focus on and when you dwell on the negative it’s measurably harmful to your wellness, including your relationship wellness. It also biases you in favor of a negative orientation to other aspects of your life. That’s not an argument for repressing feelings. It’s an invitation to consider how what you pay attention to can shape your perception and, consequently, your relationships. Gratitude journaling and meditations are examples of practices that can change a negativity bias and positively impact your life experiences.
There are brain researchers who note that critical thinking and creativity light up different neural circuits in the brain and that these cannot be active at the same time. In other words if you’re working on a creative idea you can’t think critically about it (or anything), although you can switch back and forth in an instant. You can be equally as skilled at critical thinking as you are at creativity. However, what if you devote 70% of your time to mulling over injustices (past, present and future) and only 30% on what a just, decolonized society might look like? We know from neuroplasticity that your brain will physically develop in a way that facilitates how you use it. A brain focused on anti-O is going to get really good at theorizing, analyzing, recalling, educating and debating anti-O concepts.
But what you don’t use, you lose. So if you spend less time on creative, joyful and other pursuits, your brain restructures itself to accommodate that. You will become less effective at imagining and practicing ways of living based on justice and equality simply because you’ve devoted more time, energy and gray matter to something else.
What’s more, folks consistently on the alert to find ideas, events or people to critique, are less likely to notice pro-justice and pro-equity activities, much less value and grow them. However, if you turned that around and trained yourself to look for ideas, events and people to appreciate you will see them everywhere. That doesn’t mean you’ll be blind to injustice but it might mean that you will invest more of your time and energy in creating the kinds of relationships that promote just and equitable lifeways. This is the idea behind Thanksgiving Addresses, gratitude rituals, and many other spiritual practices that encourage us to focus our minds and hearts on life affirming activities.
What does this mean for Black and Indigenous relationships? As with ceremony/ritual, it’s about intentions. If we walk into any relationship with a mind literally built for critique we will find plenty to criticize, judge and denounce. On the other hand, if we enter into relationships with a mindset that is eager to make connections and create relationships that transform our current reality, that is what we will do.
There is a spiritual principle that says that when you spend energy tearing down what you don’t want, you create resistance and even entrenchment. Nevertheless, some things need to be torn down, actually and conceptually, so this isn’t an argument to let everything stand. It’s more an argument for finding balance because when you invest energy into creating and growing more of what you prefer you hasten its arrival and expansion into reality. Any challenges you experience in this process serve to build your spiritual muscles and strengthen your physical world-building skills. Hence it makes sense to at least invest half, if not more, of your energy appreciating, building, and creating rather than critiquing and tearing down.
This doesn’t mean conflict and disagreements among us will magically disappear if we spend more time appreciating and working together but it might mean we are less focused on our points of difference and more on building just and decolonized ways of life.