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A Second Depolarizing Story

Depolarizing Story 2

Reciprocal Dignity and A Third Way

On this day I am a consultant working with an organization called CHARG which is a rare mental health community which is about to go through a major leadership change. I am in the middle of a deep interview with a man name Victor who has just awed me with the statement, “I am blind, have AIDS, and major mental illnesses but here I’m doing okay.” As I enjoy this man who tends to speak loudly as he works at the front desk of CHARG, I wonder if I would tend toward loudness if I couldn’t see all those around me. In this moment, I feel a tingling in the back of my neck as if something powerful is happening behind me. I turn to see a trim, older man looking at me with bold benevolence – he is savoring something about what is occurring between myself and Victor but I can’t take the time to figure it out because I am still in the middle of an interview. I turn back to Victor and finish our conversation but as soon as it ends, this man is standing very near both of us, looks at me with his soft blazing eyes and says, “What have you done to cultivate your presence?” This question shakes me and provokes a sudden brief vision of all of humanity going through their lives without realizing that every choice changes their inner being and forms a unique presence which could be felt by others. I murmur something about needing months to answer that question well and left the building for the day. A reciprocal cycle of giving and receiving unique goodness has begun.

A central reason why these experiences occurred is due to CHARG empowering “consumers” (people with mental illnesses) to shape and run the organization. CHARG has two full boards of directors, one of consumers and one of surrounding community members. Both boards must agree on all major decisions setting the direction of the organization and this is not easy to accomplish.

On one occasion, the boards were deadlocked – the consumer board was convinced that the staff had to have raises because of their excellent work and the community board disagreed because it wasn’t fiscally responsible to spend that much money. They remained in opposition for months with neither side backing down, but they had practiced holding tension like this until they found a third way and so the heat of their conflict was able to become reflective instead of destructive. Eventually, a new idea emerged which had not been a part of the discussion. They all agreed to initiate new fundraising efforts which made it fiscally possible to give the raises.

This reciprocal dignity practice requires granting respect to both perspectives and believing something new can be found that honors both sides. In the book A Walk With Lady Wisdom, I describe it like this, “Perhaps a person who has experienced the mental health system first-hand might know a thing or two about it. Could this be honored in the same manner as a community member with experience in nonprofit finance? Yes!”

Remembering our common humanity, seeking the good in the people around us, and finding ways to use tension to discover new ways of seeing are third way portions of reciprocal dignity which bear a great deal of good fruit.

Can we apply such practices to multi-racial friendship and understanding? Can we apply such practices to growth in political collaboration around higher values such as love of our land and all people? It is already happening. Polarization is not the only option.

Here is a definition of reciprocal dignity that will be further developed in upcoming writings. There is a bit of all the elements in the definition in the stories above.

Reciprocal Dignity : a wisdom practice that shares power and gives space for the poverty and abundance in people to be experienced as receptivity, resonance, and respect.

CHARG has changed its name to Heartland and you can learn more here:


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