This week I spent two full workdays on the phone with the IRS. I called to resolve issues for two clients with completely different and equally tragic situations. While on hold, a recording offered various easy and convenient online tools I could use in lieu of continuing to wait for a live representative. I appreciate that the IRS participates (however rarely) in newfangled technology like online account options, but some things cannot be resolved without talking to a human. Some situations do not fit neatly into the menu of possible problems The System is prepared to assist with. Just like my client's situations.
Client A had at least part of their identity stolen. Specifically, the part of their identity employers ask for to issue paychecks and send end-of-year tax reporting documents. Like any other employee, Mystery Person worked, got paid, and received a W-2 at the end of the year. Unfortunately for Client A, the W-2 was issued under their social security number and name... not under Mystery Person's name and identifying number.
Client A was a college student with a small amount of wages from a summer job. Much much less than earnings from full-time employment. So when Mystery Person's wages were not reported on Client A's tax return, the IRS sent Client A a letter. Flummoxed, Client A wrote back to the IRS and explained she had no idea what that company was or why they reported wages for her.
Time passed. More letters came. The first one said "we got your letter and need more time to respond." The second one was another copy of the initial notice. The third one asked for documentation that Client A had never worked for the Mystery-Person-W-2-issuing-company. It is profoundly difficult to prove the non-existence of something. But the unreasonableness of the request did not prevent the IRS from making it, so Client A came to me.
My call to the IRS (through the special hotline for tax practitioners) sparked an identity theft investigation that lasted more than a year. In the intervening time, Mystery Person continue to work for the company and W-2s were issued for the next year. So another W-2 for full-time work was filed under Client A's social security number. IRS noticed this W-2 was also not included in Client A's tax return and sent Client A a letter for that year too.
Fortunately for Client A, I understand how the IRS functions and so was able to facilitate the bringing together of several strands of information into a positive conclusion during this week's phone call. The IRS investigation finally concluded that Mystery Person's W-2 did not belong on Client A's tax return. I asked the IRS Representative to kindly apply those long-awaited findings to the subsequent year since it was the same situation. They mercifully obliged. And just like that: the whole issue was finally resolved.
The System was not set up for that particular problem. People within The System needed to hear from a person familiar with The System who was connected to the person having the issue (me). Then those folks inside had to check the right boxes and file the right forms with the right people in the right places to create resolution. And no part of that process was easy, reassuring, or comprehendible to the person on the outside (Client A).
It doesn't have to be this way. But it is. And Client A's experience is unfortunately common. When I worked for IRS I resolved countless "unusual" situations. There was no clear way to fix these "unusual" issues, but they needed to be resolved and somebody had to make sure it got done. So I took up the cause and didn't let those cases go until everything was sorted out.
At the time I thought those cases were anomalies. I thought I just ended up with all the weird ones because I was good at figuring them out. What I have since come to understand is that I was the person standing in between my fellow human beings and the churn of The Great Machine. I spoke the language of The Tax System and so I could translate Human to System. Without me, those people would be doomed to an unending cycle of correspondence, document submission, and box checking.
And that is just the Tax System. The same is true for the legal system, the education system, the economic system. Even things that should be inherently human-focused, like the disaster relief system. The System, whichever one you look at, is not designed to work for people. They are all designed to perpetuate their own existence, aided by the many humans who work in these agencies tending our great machines of bureaucracy.
We need to create better systems. But we can't wait until we have better systems to start doing things differently. We can't wait for better systems to start looking after people. So whenever you can, however you can, in whatever systems you have influence: take care of people. Make your priority people over process and property. The system is made of people and all those people (us people) should be working for the benefit and betterment of all of us people.
Information and Inspiration
I am a revolution
When I was a kid, the revolutions I learned about were major events. They were loud and full of bloodshed. They were righteous. And they occurred a long time ago. Ancient history, when the suffering masses in various places rose up as one to topple their oppressor. The time before revolutions was a time before democracy. A time before freedom.
That is what I learned in school. A presentation of selective excerpts from history amounting to propaganda with insufficient context and no discussion about what freedom actually means. We did not talk about the many faces of oppression. We did not reflect on the state of post-revolutionary states in the modern world. We did not talk about who was telling the story of that history.
I was in high school before I learned revolutions were still happening in the world. I learned that some countries didn't adopt a constitution until the 1970's or 1980's. Some masses were still suffering under their oppressor. I was surprised. This wasn't ancient history, this was happening during my lifetime. It was happening right now. But it was happening somewhere else, so I became distracted by happenings closer to home and my daily life moved on.
A decade later, I watched the Arab Spring begin in Tunisia. For weeks, protestors filled the streets to demand change. And... it worked! The long-standing leader fled the country and the ruling party was disbanded. Neighboring countries were inspired and revolution spread around North Africa and the Middle East. It was amazing.
It was major and it was loud and it was bloody. And it got me thinking about the possibility of revolution in other places. I didn't think that kind of regime-toppling action could happen anymore. But if it could happen in Tunis and Cairo, why not anywhere else? Why not everywhere else?
The summer of 2020 felt a lot like the beginning of a revolution. It was big and loud, and it was bloody. And although people all over the country joined in protests for a few weeks, it wasn't a large enough movement to bring down the government. It got enough attention to pass some long overdue policy changes, but it turned out not to be the Arab Spring kind of revolution.
Which got me thinking: what if revolution doesn't always look that way? What if revolution is a mindset?
I recently had a shoulder out of whack, so I went to see a massage therapist. It was a combination of muscle tension from physical activity and holding on to toxic narratives. So we worked together to allow my body to let those things go. Through my Taiji practice, I have come to understand that the body holds trauma and emotions until our heart and mind are ready to work through them. That day I was ready. I processed the things I was holding in my shoulder. My muscles unclenched.
"How courageous" the massage therapist called me for taking care of my body (and mind and spirit). It is not in the profit interest of pharmaceutical companies or the owners of our capitalist system for people to heal and repair themselves. That small act of healing self-exploration really is counter to much of the prevailing culture.
Even the booming self-care industry is largely focused on looking for comfort or well-being from things outside ourselves. So my persistent effort to heal my wounds without buying-in to the quick-fix commercial offerings is a revolutionary act. I finally understand that it is radical to care about and to care for myself. Just as it is radical to take care of other people.
I want us all to take care of ourselves and each other. Turns out I'm a revolutionary.
Information and Inspiration
The boundaries of forgiveness
For as far back as I can remember people have called me a very forgiving person. That has always made sense to me because I don't hold grudges and I generously give the benefit of the doubt. So I accepted the title, pinned the Forgiving Person badge to the lapel of my personality, and went about my life. I have not examined it more deeply until this week when my mum shared something from a book she is reading called Deep Kindness.
The author, Houston Kraft, posits that humans cannot be kind until we are capable of true forgiveness. That makes sense to me: a person carrying around hurt or anger or betrayal will express themselves through those filters. If they intend to express kindness, their message passes through those filters and reaches the recipient as kindness colored by hurt or anger or betrayal. So we cannot cleanly express one part of ourselves if we are unable to let go of the other things taking up space in our heart-mind.
True forgiveness, according to Kraft, is understanding the difference between a person and their actions. This is one of my most well-honed skills. I don't remember exactly when I began developing it, but this ability has been with me since the way way back. When someone says or does something hurtful, I can almost always distinguish that person from whatever they did or said. That means I can hold their humanity in one hand while I hold my feelings (my humanity) in the other. Maybe that’s at the root of my forgivingness.
Before this examination, I have always thought my propensity for forgiveness was borne of my disinterest in or non-attachment to blame. When something goes badly, a lot of folks never make it to the resolution phase because they get hung up on who is to blame. Most of the time, I’d rather invest my energy in moving forward to a place that includes not-that-problem. I’m much more interested in the repair work.
And while it is often critical to identify the cause of a problem in order to fix it, merely identifying who is at fault is not a solution in itself. Assigning fault is only relevant as part of the larger goal of healing and resolution. Blame for the sake of blame doesn't move us closer to either, so it doesn't interest me.
This outlook has manifested in both positive and negative ways in my life. I have been able to see through a loved one's problematic behavior and identify the root cause as their own suffering instead of my failure as a human being. I have managed toxic bosses while simultaneously working to make a positive workplace environment. I have healed from many traumas and solved a whole lot of problems.
It also happened that some people in my life hurt me repeatedly because I was too quick to let things go and move on. Although, my letting go was not actually the problem. The problem was a lack of boundaries. Every time those habitual harmers handed me some of their hurt, I held it for them. Even when it hurt me.
And I didn't ever hand it back because I assumed they couldn't hold it themselves, and I knew they would feel terrible for lashing out and handing it to me in the first place. I valued their emotional comfort more than my own. I held their humanity above my own. And I didn't recognize it at the time. I can let things go and forgive right away, I don’t need to hold on to hurt. And to do that I need to hold on to my self-worth and value my own humanity. I need to hold on to my boundaries.
Brené Brown says the most compassionate people are the ones with the most steadfast boundaries. Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries continues to be one of my greatest challenges, but as I hold more of my own humanity I am able to hold more of other people's humanity. So it seems that in order to be kind I not only need a capacity for true forgiveness, I also need really good boundaries.
This seems to be what politicians are missing in the current quest to mend the Great American Partisan Divide. Our leaders are either stuck in their attachment to blame or they are rushing past accountability into “can’t we all just get along?” Asking the country to come together without acknowledging lines have been crossed is not kind. It is sowing seeds that will blossom into resentment.
So as constituents and regular folks, that’s what we need to ask our elected officials for. As Brené Brown says “clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” Have difficult and challenging conversations with yourself, your family, your friends, your neighbors, and your elected officials. Establishing and honoring healthy boundaries will help us all move toward forgiveness and compassion for each other.
Information and Inspiration
Nature is adaptive. It's programmed to survive. So as it grows, when it meets an obstacle it simply grows around or through it. Like all those tree roots pushing up sidewalks, flowers growing in unlikely places, and that large and very old vine that absorbed and became one with my neighbor's chain-link fence.
As part of nature, humans are also adaptive. We are also programmed to survive. The past year has felt like nothing but adaptation since the pandemic suddenly and drastically changed absolutely everything everywhere. There are many examples of positive adaptations, like sending as many people as possible home to work and developing a vaccine in record time.
Unfortunately there are also examples of negative adaptations in the face of Covid19, like when masks were turned from lifesaving tools to markers of political affiliation. And this week the Director of the World Health Organization publicly admonished wealthy nations for fighting over their next million vaccine doses when other countries have only been able to secure tens of doses to date.
The respectable intention of national leaders securing inoculation for their citizens seems to be coming at the expense of access for entire other countries. That means whole swaths of humanity remain unable to get out from under the devastating effects of coronavirus. Which means we are all still in danger of Covid spreading and mutating and arriving back on our shores.
And that is just a practical implication, which says nothing of moral or ethical considerations. It is certainly not a new phenomenon for those with means to use those means to secure their own comfort or convenience ahead of or instead of the have-nots. History is littered with examples and the resulting fallout.
To survive an ever-evolving world, it is necessary to grow and change. However, adaptations are often just workarounds. A response to current circumstances without much consideration for long-term planning. So a frequent unintended consequence of adaptation is perpetuation of whatever systems are presently in operation.
I adapted to the particular flavor of my volatile upbringing by developing the survival skill of taking up no space and not rocking the boat. I learned how to anticipate the needs and reactions of my parent and moderated my behavior to accommodate those rhythms. It kept me safe. And it also had far-reaching consequences in my adult life.
I brought those skills into my other relationships and ended up surrounded by emotional vampires. Friends and partners drained my energy, time, and emotional processing power and gave nothing back. The unintended and unfortunate consequence of my childhood survival skill kept me safe, but it didn’t allow me to be healthy.
I continue to see the same perpetuation of unhealthy systems in the way a lot of people are adapting to the increased overall awareness of racism, sexism, ableism, and all the other flavors of oppression and othering in our societal structures. People who intend to make a positive change don a differently shaped badge of superiority, taking every available opportunity to tear down others demonstrating what they deem as insufficient wokeness.
Overcoming oppression by oppressing others won’t work. Just as trying to fulfill the promises of “liberty for all” by taking freedom from others isn’t actually liberation. No matter who you take it from, whether it’s the currently rich and powerful or other lowly folk, if you’re taking it from someone else than it’s just another kind of bondage. In the end, all you have is a workaround; not a real solution.
Rearranging the system leaves us with the very same system, even if you end up differently positioned within that system. Naomi Alderman explores this truth in her compelling novel, The Power. As girls and women all over the world suddenly develop a new physical power that can overcome the strength of any man, the societal power imbalance shifts. The unintended consequences of how that shift is orchestrated are immense and horrifying.
So what are we cultivating as we adapt to the world and the people around us? Is it what we want or are we instead creating an environment where all the unintended consequences will bloom and flourish without our being any the wiser? Are we creating a workaround that enables us to survive in an unhealthy system, or are we growing something new that gets us closer to collective health, peace, and wellbeing?
Information and Inspiration
Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.