Thursday, February 19, 2015

Personal Growth, Making Mistakes, and Activism

By Wade Hudson

Self-development helps activists increase their effectiveness. Learning better how to listen, be less judgmental, offer constructive criticism, speak from the heart, inspire others, handle anger, acknowledge mistakes and weaknesses, avoid burnout, and spread happiness are some of the valuable qualities that we can cultivate with intentional effort.

Nurturing humility is particularly important. In her "On Being Wrong" TED Talk, Kathryn Schulz stated:
Most of us do everything we can to avoid thinking about being wrong, or at least to avoid thinking about the possibility that we ourselves are wrong.... Getting something wrong means there's something wrong with us.... We all kind of wind up traveling through life trapped in this little bubble of feeling very right about everything.... To step outside of that the single greatest moral, intellectual and creative leap you can make.... You need to step outside of that tiny, terrified space of rightness and look around at each other and look out at the vastness and complexity and mystery of the universe and be able to say, "Wow, I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong."
Verbalizing thoughts and feelings concerning personal issues enhances understanding. Being heard, understood, and accepted by others is comforting and encourages us to persist with the difficult task of internal examination.

Given the hectic nature of the modern world, regularly setting aside special time to pause, reflect, and evaluate our personal efforts can be beneficial. Such gatherings, perhaps with a small group of trusted allies, can serve as accountability sessions.

Written commitments are also useful. They focus our attention. That’s why partners embrace marriage vows and religious communities verbalize key beliefs in unison during worship.

Yet I know of no political organization with written goals that commit members to engage in self-evaluation, acknowledge mistakes, and support one another in their open-ended self-improvement, with individuals defining their own goals.

I neither expect nor want every political organization to implement such policies. But it seems it would be good if at least a few did. Those groups could attract members who seek a caring, supportive community.

That's why I was excited by the contributions of James and Phil Lawson last weekend, as I reported in “Vincent Harding Teach-In Explodes.” James first articulated a passionate call for a commitment to nonviolence as a way of life, not merely as a tactic (which I refer to as “deep nonviolence.”)  Then Phil suggested that we develop a “recovery program” to help activists deal with the “addictions” that society has inculcated in us. That frame implies a willingness to acknowledge mistakes and weaknesses, which is key to self-development.

The response to the Lawson brothers at the Teach-In and other signs indicate that a full commitment to integrating the personal, the social, and the political may soon crystallize. When I ask people, “In what way do you want to be a better person?” most people respond quickly, which indicates they give the matter considerable thought. The two “compassionate politics” workshops and the “Gandhi-King Holistic Three-Fold Path” workshop that associates and I convened elicited vital participation. The Movement Strategy Center  is doing great work with activists promoting personal and collective transformation.

And as Dr. Dorsey Blake reported in his February 15 sermon at the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, earlier this month the 2015 Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference on “Reclaiming Our Moral Authority: Faith and Justice in the Age of Reinvented Empire" addressed personal issues in a very powerful manner. My notes from Blake’s sermon include:
We cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools…. We need internal examination in order to love consistently…. We are all trapped in Empire, with complicity and duplicity…. Nonviolence is needed to win the hearts of others…. Empire understands violence. It can crush violence. But it does not know how to respond to nonviolence when demonstrators are willing to go to jail….. 
Most of the responses to my "Vincent Harding Teach-In Explodes" post, mostly from women, were supportive. One reported on a recent decision to drop out of an activist organization due to troublesome interpersonal dynamics and commented, “Thank you for all of this. I'm sorry I wasn't there and should have been. I could have used this."

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb said my essay consisted of “important reflections” and commented that both of the Lawson brothers are her beloved mentors. She also encouraged others to support the Black Lives Matter movement and urge the Berkeley City Council to change policies related to police violence.

Roma Guy replied, “Amen...thanks. ” And Joan Greenfield said, “Great write-up. ...Admitting mistakes and resolving to avoid them in the half the equation to me. The other half is seeing, or being aware when one repeats them, and that's easier said than done.”

However, one respondent commented:
I was slightly disappointed to read your account of the conference and its "new directions" without mentioning that these new directions are exactly what the Network of Spiritual Progressives has been preaching and teaching for the past ten years. I would have hoped you'd have told people that there really is an organization trying to do exactly what you talk about in this article…. 
The Network of Spiritual Progressives has made important contributions. In particular, it has helped many spiritually inclined activists to come “out of the closet.” However, their statement of purpose presents an external focus that fails to address internal growth and includes no affirmation of self-evaluation. The same applies to the Network’s recent call for a strategy conference, which even declared: "Nor are we writing you to suggest personal repentance." That shocking formulation contradicts the call for acknowledging mistakes that is implied by Phil Lawson’s proposal for a “recovery program.” So, despite its extensive good work, the Network does not seem to be “exactly...preaching and teaching” what I articulated in my report on the Harding Teach-In.

Another correspondent replied to my post by saying, “You seem to be asking for a ‘catechism’ and a church model to hold practitioners responsible for something that is much more about personal practice to which one holds oneself to in a moment by moment way.”

I find that statement too individualistic. Personal practice is important, but it is not “much more” important than mutual support. The individual and the community are of equal importance. We need an equal emphasis on each, a balance. Peers learn from and encourage one another. Peer pressure can be positive. We are social creatures. Community can be valuable. Intentional community can be even more powerful.

I see no need for a catechism, complex instruction manual, or elaborate creed. However, brief statements of shared principles and simple, user-friendly tools can productively structure self-regulating support groups. Rather than tell others how they need to change specifically, we can encourage a dedication to personal growth in general -- by asking questions like "what mistakes have you made lately?"

For many of us, our personal growth could be enhanced by participating in an activist organization whose members admit mistakes, resolve to avoid repeating them, and otherwise consciously support one another in their self-improvement.

We may soon witness the emergence of such caring communities (or their proliferation if some already exist). If so, society would benefit.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Vincent Harding Teach-In Explodes

Photo: Vincent Harding
Last Saturday, a day-long intergenerational teach-in honoring Vincent Harding erupted with inspiration in the early afternoon with a powerful statement from Rev. James Lawson. Lawson was a mentor to the 1960 Nashville sit-ins and a close associate of both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harding, a scholar and activist who wrote King’s anti-Vietnam War speech.

Toward the end of the February 7 teach-in, in which more than one hundred individuals participated, Rev. Phil Lawson, James’ younger brother and a long-term Bay Area activist, proposed monthly gatherings to continue the conversation, which was organized by the National Council of Elders. Whether that happens remains to be seen.
Following the lunch break, James Lawson addressed two points about which, he said, “I haven’t heard anything today.” First, he declared, “All of us have the task to be as fully human, loving, and alive as possible.” Second, he urged activists to promote personal nonviolent struggle in order to become more fully nonviolent as individuals and more effective as activists.
He urged the audience to work on “how we treat each other and ourselves and how we work together” so that we better “learn how to respect each other.” In a challenge to traditional methods of organizing, he argued, “You can’t overcome this society with the old order. You can’t overcome darkness with darkness. You can’t fight evil with evil. We need a new model.”
Later, his brother, Phil, echoed that theme when he asked, “Who is the enemy?” and answered that it is “a spiritual power that has captured everyone” and fosters a wide variety of destructive “addictions.” To counter that force, he said we need a new spiritual power of our own: a profound commitment to nonviolence as a way of life, not as a tactic. “Everyone is an addict and we need to be in some program of recovery from the addictions of our society. We need a long-term, disciplined project.”
Those words were music to my ears. For me, the Lawson brothers’ comments exploded the event with a sudden burst of spirit, hope, and inspiration.
It was no surprise that the morning session failed to address those issues. That vacuum commonly permeates similar gatherings, including those convened by faith-based and faith-rooted organizers.
For years, I’ve been preaching a similar message concerning “deep nonviolence.” That work must include, it seems to me, a willingness and an ability to examine oneself honestly, admit mistakes (at least to a small circle of trusted allies), and resolve to avoid them in the future. As I see it, an organization rooted in deep nonviolence of the sort advocated by the Lawson brothers needs to be clearly, explicitly committed to mutual support and self-improvement, and its members need to set aside special time regularly for that purpose. That work needs to be intentional and disciplined. But I’ve been unable to find an organization with that kind of commitment, and my efforts to initiate one have not been successful, though I’ve connected with many people who have expressed interest.
Toward the end of teach-in, the participants formed small breakout groups and discussed the day’s events for fifteen minutes. I expressed my support for the Lawsons’ comments, and others in my group seemed supportive. And when all of the groups reported back, a few others referred to “addictions” and/or “support groups,” which was encouraging.
Another issue that I raised in my small group was the fact that the day’s proceedings did not consider the need to focus on winnable demands, a key principle embraced by both Gandhi and King. I argued that shutting down BART briefly or otherwise disrupting “business as usual” as the local #BlackLivesMatter groups have done may be “healing” for the demonstrators, as a number of speakers at the teach-in reported. But to build support with the general public, there needs to be a focus on achievable objectives. The same applies to acts of “moral witness.” Those actions may reach a few onlookers and the demonstrators may feel better afterward. But we need more than that.
Phil Lawson presented one such potentially realistic demand when he said that if the Alameda County District Attorney “overcharges” the demonstrators arrested at a recent BART action (by, for example, charging them with felonies), others should protest that decision by shutting down BART themselves. That stance seems to hold more potential than demanding that no charges whatsoever be filed, as some are proposing.
Along the same line, another word that I did not hear at the teach-in was “reconciliation,” a key principle affirmed by Gandhi and King. Their aim was not to defeat “enemies” by imposing their will, but rather to find common ground through negotiation.
After the teach-in adjourned, I thanked Phil for his “addictions” frame and commented that, as with the Harm Reduction Model in drug treatment, we may not need to tell fellow individual activists how they need to change specifically. Rather, perhaps we can leave it to individuals to define their own goals.
And I expressed my appreciation to James for speaking to those issues that had been missing from the morning session, as I too had noticed. One panelist did briefly talk about the need to learn how to deal with “ego.” And Wilson Riles offered some insightful comments about how “we swim in what oppresses us but don’t recognize it,” such as the English language with its anti-Black connotations and individualistic formats for how we relate to each other. But there was no proactive, corrective solutions offered. The Lawsons filled that void.
When I told James that some of us locally have been considering the development of one or more user-friendly, easily replicated tools that activists could use in self-regulating small groups to support one another with their self-improvement, he said “try it and see how it goes,” and commented that nonviolence is not so much a matter of “training” as it is “living it.”
James Baldwin, the renowned African-American author, once said:

A day will come when you will trust you more than you do now and you will trust me more than you do now. We will trust each other. I do believe, I really do believe that we can all become better than we are. I know we can.

I remain inspired by the hope that Baldwin and the Lawson brothers have articulated so well and will continue to try to foster its realization. Toward that end, inspired by the process that William Swing used to craft the United Religions initiative, I may seek an organization to facilitate a similar collaborative writing project to compose a position paper on how to build broad, multi-issue unity though deep nonviolence. If I can find such an organization, I might use  a recent inheritance to make a sizable donation to it myself, and also seek other funds to back it.
My optimism is tempered, however. Baldwin also said, “But the price is enormous and people are not yet ready to pay.” Most activists are convinced they already have the answers and only need to figure out how to better mobilize others to do what they, the activists, want them to do. Honest self-examination is painful, and collaboration rooted in mutual respect is not easy. Those tasks require more humility and vulnerability than is common among activists.
Nurturing a balance between conviction and flexibility is an urgent need. It is the best path to the beloved community. Continuing the February 7 conversation could help.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Leonard Roy Frank: An Eulogy

By Wade Lee Hudson

NOTE: On January 31 friends and family of Leonard Roy Frank held a memorial service mourning his death and celebrating his life at the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco. To listen to an audio recording of the service, click here (a video shot and produced by Ellison Horne will be posted soon.) Following is the eulogy that I presented.

Shortly before he turned thirty, Leonard Roy Frank read Gandhi An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth. That book changed his life. Along with his own religious experiences and books by other authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, William James, and Arnold Toynbee, it prompted him to more fully reject the materialism of his youth. His new worldview did not emerge out of thin air. A letter he wrote in the mid-1950s included a vehement attack on “commercialism.” But his spiritual faith did dramatically deepen. In many respects, he was reborn, a new man. For more than fifty years, he followed that path with remarkable diligence.

Though Leonard respected approaches such as Buddhism and indigenous spirituality, his faith was monotheism, and not just some amorphous theism. His God was a personal God who shared with humanity many of the same characteristics that make humans distinct -- such as consciousness, intelligence, will power. His God spoke to Leonard through his dreams and during prayer. He experienced an intimate partnership with his God, a Being who sustained him in his life as an urban hermit. Leonard was rarely lonely. His God was almost always by his side.

Leonard believed God needs humanity as much as humanity needs God. His God united the many faiths that preceded his Hebrew faith and provides the integrating power that energizes and structures life. Today many astrophysicists speak in similar terms about the force behind the universe, and many students of the mind speak in similar terms about the unconscious mind, which they say is rooted in a collective unconscious. With Emerson, Leonard believed that if individuals go down deep within and discover their true Self, they encounter the Ground of All Being and feel interwoven with all life.

The night I found his body following what the medical examiner said was probably an “event,” the shades were drawn, the lights were on, the television was off, and there was a notebook laying on his bed, suggesting that he had been sitting up in bed scribbling notes in the middle of the night as he often did. Those notes concerned Jesus. On his computer screen was the fourteenth Psalm. Next to his computer keyboard were three books: The Names of God, God in the Dock, and his old copy of the Holy Bible, whose cover was held together with tape. The condition of that Bible suggests that he studied it more than any other book. When asked, he once recited the Lord’s Prayer word for word. He frequently watched evangelists on television to learn from them. His relationship with God was the primary, deepest, most important part of his life.

As a student of Jung and Campbell, Leonard appreciated the power of symbols and myths and generally did not interpret the Bible literally as do fundamentalists. But he did believe some parts of the Bible were literally true, and he did take some of its directives literally, such as the prescription to avoid shaving. When they locked him up in 1962, the psychiatrists forcibly shaved his beard, which infuriated him. Another source of conflict with Psychiatry was his Gandhi-inspired vegetarianism, which the psychiatrists considered another sign of mental illness.

Their massive doses of insulin coma and electroshock treatments wiped out much of his memory. But he never submitted to their authority. He never said what they wanted to hear. He never sold out. I suspect the psychiatrists just gave up. Upon release, he returned to his former lifestyle, let his beard grow, practised vegetarianism, soon became a vegan, promoted veganism passionately, and with the benefit of an inheritance that enabled him to live simply, pursued his studies and spiritual discipline.

Once Leonard ate chicken by mistake when the waiter gave him a dish with what appeared to be tofu. At first he was angry, but he soon forgave himself, saying “There was no intention.” Throughout his life, seeking to optimize his health and energy level, he constantly experimented with his diet. In recent years, he emphasized chewing slowly, very, very slowly. He seemed to finally figure out a diet that worked for him, as he got sick much less frequently in recent years and had consistently high energy for months prior to his death.

Another major impact on Leonard was Arnold Toynbee, the world historian and philosopher who was highly regarded in the 1940s and 1950s but then fell out of favor due to his spiritual outlook. Toynbee concluded that societies evolve to higher levels by responding successfully to challenges of extreme difficulty, under the leadership of creative minorities who help reorient their entire society. The greater the challenge, the better, for it “rouses [people] to make a hitherto unprecedented effort…. We have not yet encountered an example of [an excessive challenge],” he wrote. A society’s spiritual health, according to Toynbee, was the most important factor in determining whether it would rise or fall.

That perspective was a major pillar in Leonard’s life. He monitored the stock market closely every day, trying to divine prospects for the future. He followed every major crisis closely, such as the Fukishima nuclear meltdown and the Ukraine conflict. He almost always had the network news on TV while he worked at his computer, proving that some people can multi-task effectively. He focused on looming crises because he anticipated that one would eventually escalate into a near-catastrophe that would wake people up just in time to prevent a total catastrophe, thereby paving the way for both personal and social transformation. When pressed he would acknowledge the value of incremental reforms, but his tendency was to focus like a laser beam on how those gains fell short.

The transformation he envisioned was heaven on earth. His vision included a widespread return to the land, extensive organic farming, and complete peace. Many great writers and leaders like Jesus have been Utopians. But in 1962, being a Utopian could get you locked up and labelled paranoid schizophrenic. After all, paranoids are also supposed to be grandiose, and Leonard certainly had grand dreams -- for all of us. He wanted a New Revolution and he wanted all of us, including himself, to make major contributions. Promoting that vision was his greatest passion. It motivated him to do his work with an incredible degree of devotion and discipline. That passion was the glue that held together our relationship.

Leonard was no more crazy than many prominent Utopians who populate human history. Even those who take his dreams less literally than he did would do well to derive meaning from them -- as Karl Jung and Joseph Campbell, two of his heroes, did with dreams, myths, and symbols.

Needless to say, after his incarceration, Leonard developed a keen interest in Psychiatry and soon found a lifelong, close ally in Thomas Szasz, whose 1961 book, The Myth of Mental Illness, received widespread attention. Szasz argued that if and when biological factors cause emotional and psychological difficulties, those problems should be diagnosed as a physical illness, not a mental one. Otherwise, we can use plain English, not medical jargon, to talk about personal problems. Szasz and Leonard therefore rejected the very notion of “mental illness,” and opposed giving psychiatrists the power to treat people against their will.

Leonard had another problem with the medical model: it is materialistic. It reduces human beings to objects, helpless victims of their biology. His spiritual faith deepened his opposition to biological psychiatry.

During the formation of the Network Against Psychiatric Assault, or NAPA, Leonard proposed a focus on three simple demands: No More Forced Drugging; No More Forced Psychosurgery; No More Forced Shock. The other co-founders accepted that proposal and NAPA’s first brochure featured a quote from C.S. Lewis:

Of all tyrannies a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive… Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience…. You start being “kind” to people before you have considered their rights, and then force upon them supposed kindnesses which they in fact had a right to refuse, and finally kindnesses which no one but you will recognize as kindnesses and which the recipient will feel as abominable cruelties.

As he rebuilt his memory and worked steadily to sharpen and maintain his intellectual skills that had been damaged by those shock treatments, that opposition to forced treatment motivated Leonard the rest of his life and led him to become the “bedrock” of the psychiatric survivors movement, as Sally Zinman, a fellow activist described him.

His later research further undermined Psychiatric authority. Psychiatry’s Achilles Heel is the placebo effect. When people are given a “sugar pill” or its equivalent in controlled double-blind studies, as many or almost as many recipients appear to benefit after receiving the placebo as do those who receive the real treatment -- especially when studied months or years later. Properly designed studies have also found that people who are labelled psychotic do better in drug-free programs with intensive psychosocial support that in traditional hospitals. So Leonard and his colleagues concluded that it is not accurate to simply generalize that most psychiatric treatments are “safe and effective.” Making generalizations about their value based on personal anecdotes is foolhardy. Granted, Leonard didn’t like psychiatric drugs. He didn’t even like Aspirin. But his bottom line was that individuals should make their own decisions. And he did take painkillers once.

On January 17, two days after he died, The New York Times published a provocative op-ed titled “Redefining Mental Illness.” That piece reported that the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health had recently

announced that psychiatric science had failed to find unique biological mechanisms associated with specific diagnoses….  Diagnoses were neither particularly useful nor accurate for understanding the brain, and would no longer be used to guide research…. It jettisoned a decades-long tradition of diagnosis-driven research…. Social experience plays a significant role in who becomes mentally ill…. Illness thus requires social interventions, not just pharmacological ones.

Though that piece continues to talk about “mental illness,” that development is a positive step, a move away from the medical model toward a holistic perspective. Psychiatry’s claim to authority is based on its alleged ability to diagnose. If psychiatrists can’t diagnose, it calls into question the very foundation of their authority and their claim to be able to explain and predict human behavior, which in fact will forever remain a mystery. We are not robots.

That shift in thinking at the National Institute of Mental Health, along with society’s growing interest in veganism, organic food, spirituality, and the philosophy of nonviolence, suggest that the psychiatrists who labelled Leonard’s beliefs a sign of mental illness were on the wrong side of history.


Leonard could breathe fire and brimstone and most of our conversations were intense intellectual discourse. When we’d go hiking with one friend or another, they rarely stopped talking, rather than silently communing with Mother Nature as I preferred. And I remember how I was amazed when, after the international Alternatives to Psychiatry conference in Cuernavaca, we were at a party doing the kind of things people do at parties and he kept preaching non-stop!

Being brutalized probably made Leonard more guarded than he was before he was locked up. It took him many years to get over his fear of being incarcerated again for being too honest. In general he was a private person. But at times he expressed remarkable spontaneous tenderness, like when he encountered a pet rabbit in Golden Gate Park, or gave Freddi Fredrickson what she said was a very good back rub in a self-help personal-growth group. And we often had fun together, like playing golf at a Morro Bay public course. Or when he smuggled in recording equipment for a friend to help him surreptitiously record a Dylan concert. Or when we laughed and ran away from the TV cameras after he and two other NAPA members were rescued from near death by the Fire Department on the cliffs at Land’s End. Or watching the Warriors win the NBA Championship from the rafters of the Cow Palace (he was thrilled by this year’s team). And the many hours we spent watching sporting events together in his apartment.

With regard to personal matters, Leonard was reserved, but if asked, he would express his feelings honestly. Once I asked him, “In what way do you want to be a better person?” and he gave me a long list of eight or more characteristics that he would like to work on. None of the items alone were unusual. What surprised me was how long the list was and that he had rarely discussed those issues with me.

When I wrote publicly about how I was frustrated by the nature of most conversations in our modernized world, he was the only reader to ask me if my comments applied to my relationship with him. When I elaborated, he asked me to point out him to him any future instances of the pattern I reported.

In the last year or so, Leonard seemed to mellow some. Twice he even had nice things to say about President Obama! A week before he died he suggested that we see the film Selma. Later I learned that the last sixteen of his daily posts to Twitter at #FrankAphorisms were quotes from Dr King. After the movie, Leonard and I had tea and engaged in a warm conversation about our shared belief in nonviolence as a philosophy, a way of life, not merely a strategy or tactic. It was the best conversation we’d had in some time and was our last time together.

The next day we discussed the film again on the phone and he told me he was coming down with a cold. Two days later, the cold was worse. On Wednesday night, he called me during halftime of the Warriors’ basketball game and left a message asking me to call him. He probably wanted to discuss the game. But I didn’t get the message until the next morning and he never replied to my messages that day, so I gained access to his apartment that night and found his body.

Leonard was my Rock of Gibraltar. We were intimately interwoven. Sherri Hirsch once said, “Leonard is the Old Testament. Wade is the New Testament.” When I wrote about that and he read it, he approved. He was a very good listener and very astute about the character of others. He believed in me more than I believed in myself and encouraged me to pursue my dreams. When I expressed doubts about my abilities, he praised them. When I wavered, he urged me to press on.

I am a different person because of Leonard. I’ll be different because he’s gone. I suspect the same is true with many others. Who knows? Maybe someday the walls between us will crumble and we will join in a popular movement to transform our society into a compassionate community. Leonard wants us to do nothing less.