In 2004, a few days into the first of four week-long retreats of a yearlong program I was co-leading, one participant, who I will call Barbara, informed the program leaders that she was intending to leave the program after the first retreat, because it wasn’t what she had signed up for. To her surprise, we asked her to engage with the whole group about her decision before finalizing it. Barbara, who had lived in many cultures and came from a community-based tradition, quickly recognized the reality that her leaving would have an impact on the whole group, and thus accepted the challenge and invitation to engage in this process.
We then brought the topic to the group. Barbara laid out her needs that were not attended to within the program; other people brought up their needs and the impact of her potentially leaving and not coming back after that retreat. We’d been in process for a while when one woman exclaimed, in utter incredulity: “Wait a minute, but it’s her decision!” We replied: “No, if you take interdependence seriously, it’s not her decision alone to make.” The woman remained stunned, and we continued the process. At the end, we reached shared clarity that what it would take to attend to Barbara’s needs would stretch the program and the group too much, and we all accepted and mourned together the decision we made collectively for Barbara not to come back.
Something similar happened three years later with another participant who was astonished to discover that other people would be affected by him leaving and, at the end of the process, decided to stay. I am still in touch with this person, and I know from him that this process shifted something in terms of his understanding and experience of interdependence. In his case the situation is more pronounced, because he actually shifted his position based on the feedback he received, rather than reaffirming his original intention.
Engaging interdependently with others in the process of making decisions feels to many people like giving up autonomy. The freedom to make whatever decisions we want to make so long as we are not harming others is one of the core attractions of the modern world. I see it as a consolation prize for the loss of community and care. It’s only within a full context of community that we have the true experience of mattering, because taking our marbles and leaving doesn’t actually attend to our needs in full; it only removes us from one context in which they are not met. Sometimes, the absence of true community and mattering is severe enough that nothing else will work, and unilateral leaving is, indeed, a life-affirming choice. Even then, there is loss relative to the experience of interdependent, caring community that is our evolutionary niche and from which we have been severed, especially in the last several hundred years. Only in community can we actually be cared about and included in decisions that affect the whole.
Interdependence is both a fact of life and an orientation to life. Whether or not we consciously engage with the interdependence of life it continues to happen. One of the consequences of modern life under conditions of capitalism is that we can ignore our interdependence. One example I have often referred to is the way that money masks our relationships and our dependence on others for the necessities of life. If I go to the supermarket and buy a loaf of bread, I can pretend to myself that I am attending to my needs without depending on others and on the rest of life, and without having an impact on others and the rest of life. The reality is quite different: people toil for the bread we buy, which makes us dependent on them for our well-being. At the same time, top soil is eroded and workers are exploited by the practices of growing most of the wheat in the world, which means that our choice about whether and which bread to buy has impacts beyond what we know and see. Whether we like it or not, whether we know about it or not, all things are interdependent. In the human field, it means that our actions affect others: our presence or absence, our smile or frown, our kindness or indifference, and the endless array of small and large decisions we make are constantly in the context of relationships, even when those are invisible to us.
This is why interdependence as an orientation is a conscious choice to align ourselves with life, to recognize the fundamental relationality of everything, and to attend to the mutual influence that we have on each other. One key aspect of this kind of practice is the quality of care that we bring to the moments in which we want to change agreements with others.
Care Is Not Binary
Some time ago I sat together with a colleague I will call Alex, to rebuild trust in the wake of actions of his that had affected me and BayNVC. In that meeting, which much of this post is based on, we came up with a way to map the various forms that interdependence and care can take in the process of attending to agreements that no longer work. You can see this mapping in the drawing accompanying this post.
Many of us were raised to believe that agreements are sacrosanct, and we simply don’t ever change them. So many times people remain in agreements that severely compromise their well being just because they committed to them at some point. This, to me, is not an expression of care nor a practice of interdependence. Why? Because when I compromise my wellbeing in service to an agreement, I am not giving the other party the option of adapting or ending the agreement as an expression of their care for me, our relationship, or the larger whole of which we are a part. Care, at its best, is mutual.
Making a New Agreement Together
This is why my favored way – when possible – to attend to situations in which I want to change an agreement is to connect with the affected parties before making the decision. This means leaving the outcome open, relying on relationships and establishing enough togetherness such that our collective human creativity can come up with a path forward that would most care for all needs.
This is not what Alex did when he recognized that an agreement he had with us at BayNVC was no longer working for him and that he wanted me to release him from any particular personal responsibility. Alex operated within a cultural field in which engaging in the way I am describing here doesn’t tend to happen. I know this, because when I have tried to engage with others about making such decisions together, I have rarely been met with understanding or active willingness. Instead, the person on the other end of the dialogue rushes to release me of responsibility without my asking to be released. I am quite confident this is the mirror image of the unilateral exit from agreements. Both prioritize autonomy, and the lonely responsibility of an individual to look after their own needs, in a context in which community is no longer present. In such a context, engaging mutually with needs tends to feel uncomfortable. It’s precisely this discomfort that I am encouraging and inviting here: it’s a fast track of recovering interdependence.
Practically speaking, it means naming that the agreement I made is no longer working for me, while also making visible and checking my assumption that it is still working for the other party. If I change the agreement without engaging with the other party, this change then creates an impact they don’t choose. If we can recognize this and engage in dialogue before choosing, we have a higher chance of finding a path forward that recognizes the impact and aims to care for all within it.
Tending Together to the Impact of a Unilateral Decision
There are many reasons why we don’t always have the option of engaging with the other party before making our decision. Sometimes it’s because of conditions external to the situation that make it unfeasible to engage before deciding. In other situations it would simply be dishonest to engage. Telling someone that we are available to dialogue about whether or not to change an agreement when a decision has already made itself within me is a charade.
If a decision happened already, and I know there is impact that I cannot care for before the decision is made, it means that dialogue cannot be about the decision; only about the impact. In such a situation, what I ideally want to be able to do is to acknowledge to the other party that I had made a decision, name the reasons why I couldn’t make the decision jointly, and invite dialogue about the impact. Why would I do that? Because the fact that I made a decision already doesn’t diminish my care for the other person; it only accentuates it. Since we continue to be in relationship, I want to do what I can to care for the impact, to hear about the impact on the other party, and to attend to requests they might have which I can fulfill in relation to the impact.
Owning and Mourning the Impact of a Unilateral Decision
Even when I don’t have the capacity to attend to the impact, or even don’t have sufficient resilience to be in dialogue with the affected parties, there is still a clear and active expression of care that I can activate. I call it owning and mourning. This one is particularly significant within the context of a conflict, where engaging in dialogue is simply beyond capacity. Since nonviolence as I see it is about the courage to speak truth with love, even when I am not finding a way to take action that cares for the impact on another person, I can still name that this is happening.
Owning the action – in this case the change of the agreement – is a powerful move to release any kind of subtle blame that I might have of the other person. Especially if I change the agreement based on acute discomfort within the relationship, acute enough to where engaging is a strain, it’s incredibly tempting to make the other party responsible for my own choice to change the agreement. Instead, I want to be rigorous with myself to know that I am always the one who decides. This allows me to empower myself and to remember the humanity of the other party. In this way I can open my heart and experience the grief of the impact on the other person and, possibly, potential losses within the relationship. I consider this particular form of engagement a spiritual achievement because, in the very act of distancing myself from an agreement, I open my heart widely to feel the mourning of the effect of my unilateral decision: both the material impact and the relational impact of making a unilateral choice.
Acknowledging the Impact of a Unilateral Decision
What Alex did in the situation is a fourth option. He approached us, acknowledged his decision to change an agreement, and expressed a general sadness about the impact. How is this different from the owning and mourning?
For one thing, there is more substance to the previous option because it’s more transparent and vulnerable. To own and mourn I need to be in touch with my own heart, to feel within myself the needs that led me to take the actions that I took, to take responsibility for those needs and the choices I made, and to keep my heart open enough, regardless of the circumstances, so that I can feel and express the mourning that then arises – I believe naturally and spontaneously – from knowing that my actions are at cost to others.
Just acknowledging the impact is easier because it’s possible to do it from an orientation of protection. That ease, however, is at cost, because it tends to register with the other party as far less care. Why? Because any protection on my end can feel to others like a wall they can’t cross, and with that comes a sense of reduction in relationship. Also, in a context in which the other party is already smarting about the loss that comes from the agreement not being kept, it’s not going to be easy for them to attribute care to the person ending the agreement. Communicating the care through the mourning of the impact supports the affected party to have a sense of mattering.
In this particular case, since Alex’s reasons to shift the agreement had nothing to do with the relationship, and his heart remained open, owning and mourning would have been a far more effective choice for nurturing the relationship than his actual choice. Still, even acknowledging the impact is an expression of care.
Acknowledging a Unilateral Decision
The most minimal expression of care that’s possible within the context of changing an agreement is to name to the other party that we are stepping out of the agreement. I see it as an expression of care in that is recognizes the existence of the other party. It’s not much. In most respects I can think of, I see this as almost entirely exiting the web of relationship with the affected parties. And nonetheless I want to remember that almost entirely exiting is not the same as exiting. Some capacity for care remains.
No Acknowledgment of a Unilateral Decision
On the other end of the spectrum from engaging with the other party before making a decision is the option of simply making the unilateral choice and leaving it to the other party to discover it on their own. It’s not even rare. We do it all the time, mostly without recognizing what we are doing. A simple example is when I invite you to a party, you accept my invitation, and then don’t come to the party. You’re unlikely to think of your action in this way as changing an agreement, or to consider the impact it might have on me. For those of us, like me, who come from cultures of community, when someone doesn’t come, we wonder what happened, even whether the person is OK. I have often asked groups of people if they feel the impact when someone leaves the group without saying anything. They do, and more so the smaller the group.
More significant examples are the stories of a person saying they are going to the grocery store and disappearing from a decades-long relationship; contractors disappearing before a project is finished; or people not returning money they had borrowed, without mentioning it.
Mending the Tear
There is a fragility in us about belonging and mattering. This is true for almost all of us who came into this life in societies where shame and coercion are strong, which is most societies currently existing. A deep and paradoxical aspect of this is that, when we don’t see our presence, our needs, our contribution, our suffering, and our joys as significant within the context of a relationship or community, we are less likely to see others and care for the impact of our actions. People who have a felt sense of being insignificant are more likely to harm others without recognizing it. A chilling example is the analysis in Steve Wineman’s Power-Under: Trauma and Nonviolent Social Change that indicates that much child abuse is done at the hands of parents who experience themselves as powerless in the very moment of harming their children.
If this is true, then the very act of caring for the impact of my actions, if done with full attention to both parties to the agreement, is a practice of mending the tears within our human fabric at the very same time that it empowers me and creates the conditions for me to take my place within the human family.
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