The Middle Ground

Knowing how polarities work, the wise leader does not push to make things happen, but allows process to unfold on its own. The leader teaches by example rather than by lecturing others on how they ought to be. The leader knows that constant interventions will block process. The leader does not insist that things come out a certain way. (John Heider, Tao of Leadership)

Screen Shot 2020-09-28 at 4.39.36 PMRuth’s seat isn’t yet cold. And the urgency to fill it with a ‘user friendly’ replacement appears paramount in the Republican fold — summoning to mind any number of adjectives: expeditious, opportunistic, cynical, hypocritical, partisan. . . the list goes on. As well, prompting comparisons with Obama’s nomination in March 2016 of Merrick Garland to occupy the seat of Antonin Scalia left vacant following the latter’s February 2016 death.

That same year, with an election looming, the argument was made by none other than Mitch McConnell that ‘The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president’. Hmm? That was evidently then; this is now. Adding to the ‘both sides of his mouth’ phenom’s ‘fluidity’ is a readiness to use filibuster as a political tactic. At the time (post 2013), the strategy had been disallowed for all circumstances except Supreme Court nominations, and was employed to delay Senate consideration of Obama’s nomination. In April 2017, the exemption was eliminated — as it suited — to allow appointment of Neil Gorsuch, a Republican choice, to take a seat on the Supreme Court. But then reversals, internal contradictions and inconsistencies, political expediency in 2020 should surprise no one.

I had occasion to hear two interviews recently with Julia Samuel, a British psychotherapist, as she discussed her new book, This Too Shall Pass. A widely acknowledged expert on grieving, this time out she explores coping strategies in times of change, crisis. She reframes some existing concepts — but in language and context that provide contemporary application. She raises the time-honoured practice of ‘sitting with’ change, embracing it even. This versus the, again, familiar and knee-jerk responses: fight, flee, freeze — as dictated by our ‘lizard brain’.

In sum, she suggests viewing change as first, inevitable, secondly, a protracted process best served by adapting (vs. being resisted, ‘wrestled against’), and thirdly, best seen as (and I love this term) a fertile void (a kind of existential opportunity). The task then becomes one of eschewing our inclination for polarizing, entrenching in one extreme or the other, and locating the equanimous, middle ground — while we adjust. ‘Using times of crisis and change as space for conversation we’ve perhaps never had’, to paraphrase Samuel’s words. She differentiates this posture from the all too common (evolutionary) alternative: remaining ‘wired for danger, on high alert’, with our emotions mismanaged and impulse control compromised. She quite correctly sees the latter stance as paralyzing to adjustment, adaptation, moving forward. We remain pushed into our respective corners — fuelled by, ‘coached’ by those that would promote the immobilizing effects of fear, high anxiety.

To Amy Coney Barrett. A crass, transparent choice by some accounts. Another calculated ‘brick’ in the conservative wall, tipping a balance that was precarious at best and only held even by the extraordinary presence of RBG. To be sure, her appointment would bring with it a presumed pro-life, anti-gun control, ‘originalist’ vote (reference the literal interpretation of a constitution devised in very different times); a vote that would remain active for many years, given her age (48). Equally, she is qualified on a number of stages, academic as well as experiential: first in her class, clerk to the Justice Scalia, circuit court justice, law professor.

And so we are presented with a change, a crisis some would say: inevitable (apparently), protracted (in place for years to come), and potentially ‘disastrous’ (with the spectre of the dismantling of much of RBG’s hard-fought gains). There can be little doubt that Barrett and Ginsberg occupy very different ‘value orbits’ — as did RBG and Justice Scalia. And perhaps a time to recall some of Ginsberg’s balanced, patient perspective:

Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘my colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way,’ but the greatest dissents do become court opinions.


When I can’t get the fifth vote for something I think is very important, (I) go on to the next challenge and give it my all. You know that these important issues are not going to go away. They are going to come back again and again. There’ll be another time, another day.

To echo Samuel’s sentiments, this is most certainly a time for conversation, not polarization — and that is not about the individuals’ particular positions. It is about the respect for the institution, championed by RBG. It is about patience and process — and a readiness to revisit and not be defeated by a single issue (or a single appointment). A long-established business hiring practice, creative abrasion, in fact endorses, encourages dissenting views as a forum for cultivating ‘best practices’, ‘best solutions’.

The villain in the piece may well be our own readiness to entrench, to choose up sides, and to retire to our respective corners. It makes us too vulnerable to the fear-mongers, the ‘champions of divisiveness’. I’m frankly getting a little tired of the Stephen Colbert’s, the Jimmy Fallon’s, the Seth Meyer’s relentless, obsessive ranting, the New Yorker’s and Post’s lopsided editorializing. How is this any different than DJT’s craven duplicity, shameless pandering?

The Jewelled Web That Ruth Spun

Screen Shot 2020-09-21 at 3.10.19 PMWith the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsberg last week, my wife and I felt a strong need to immerse in ‘something Ruth’ — as I suspect did many of us, impacted as we were by this extraordinary woman’s life and achievements. We settled on a watch of On The Basis Of Sex, a biopic documenting her days as a young lawyer, wife, mother, and passionate advocate and activist.

A scene near the film’s beginning portrays RBG attending one of husband Marty’s second-year Harvard law classes in his stead — as he battled, at the time, a disabling cancer diagnosis. The professor, Paul Freund, begins with his oft quoted assertion about the law:

The Court should never be influenced by the weather of the day but inevitably . . . by the climate of the era.

Contained therein, at once, is the need for consistent, established, grounded parameters and precedents by which individual circumstance is evaluated and ‘judged’; and a readiness and openness to evolve, to reflect not only history, but current, defining standards, understandings, realities. The film dramatizes RBG’s application of this figural principle as she begins a long (long) process of revisiting laws that are, perhaps inadvertently or even with ‘good initial intention’ (‘protecting women!’), in the current ‘climate’, discriminatory and gender biased. An irony explored as well is the opposing strategy of piling up law after law, framed around similar ‘principles’ (gender biases) as an argument for stasis, too burdensome to be considered. RBG takes the pile as a shopping list for change.

What resonated for me, far beyond the content of the film, is a broader conundrum: the demand to reconcile history with current reality; the critical need to learn from what was — but also to ‘extend the law’, to allow context to inform our choices, decisions. For some of us there is an inherent anxiety around change. The unseating of the familiar, the comfortable and well-trod paths is often resisted — raising for us the spectre of uncertainty, the unknown, the chaotic. Equally, for others the prospects of retaining the status quo for the sake of sameness, what’s always been, is abhorrent. What RBG embodied was the blending of these two maxims: a willingness to explore ‘what’s wrong’ with, anachronistic about an existing state; and to provide a pathway forward — viable, contemporary alternatives. The baby is not thrown out with the bathwater — but equally is not compelled to languish in a tepid, tainted pool.

Some years ago, I had the good fortune to hear Marcus Borg, a teacher and theologian, speak about an ‘historical-metaphorical’ reading of the Bible. At the time, I’d spent a good part of the preceding forty years quite happily ‘in the wilderness’ — sufficiently disenchanted with all things ‘churchy’, that, since my early twenties, I had no desire to darken any such doors. I’d also recently returned from a trip to the UK and a (completely unexpected) attraction for traditional sung Evensong services held daily in the cathedral we were visiting — a practice in place for the past 400 or so years — and largely unchanged. Borg provided the crucible wherein these strange and apparently opposing bedfellows could be mixed. I’d struggled with the fundamentalist, literalist interpretation of a liturgy that felt completely out of synch with the 20th (and now 21st) century applications; but still wished to hear the music and appreciate the traditions of an established spiritual tradition. It appeared that I could indeed have my cake and eat it too!

A core dilemma lies not in the ‘rightness’ or ‘timeliness’ of one or the other — the historic or the contemporary. It lies in the setting of these two polarities up against each other as absolutes, the black or white ‘truth’ one or the other of which must be championed — without one informing, improving, tempering the other. And all too often the stage on which this battle appears is the court. Recall the Monkey Trials pitting an evolution-teaching high school instructor, John Scopes, against his home state, a decidedly fundamentalist Tennessee.

Courts, by their very nature are built around an adversarial system, seen, perhaps simplistically, as providing a winner and a loser. RBG has allowed us to focus on the process, wherein each case is seen not as an end in itself — but as another brick in the wall of change. Very occasionally these individuals present, not as flag bearers for one side or the other; but as conciliators, less intent on winning and more on consciousness raising, less targeting the right or wrong and more on improving and contemporizing. And, like RBG, they are in it for the long haul.

As a parting image, consider Alan Watts description of Indra’s Web and the interconnectedness of us all:

Imagine a . . . spider’s web in early morning, covered in dew. Each drop contains the reflection of all other drops.

RBG championed progress, unification, collaboration. We’re all in this together.