Friday, June 20, 2008

Pizza with Mildred

Yesterday afternoon Ma'ikwe and I had lunch with Mildred Gordon and her husband Dave Greenson at their apartment overlooking Brighton Beach in Brooklyn on a gorgeous summer day in the mid-70s, with a delightful onshore breeze. Dave made salad and pizza and the two hours went by in a blink. It was the first time I'd seen Mildred since she'd moved from Ganas' main residential complex in Staten Island in 2001, and we had some serious catching up to do.

While fibromyalgia and hypertension have slowed her down physically, her mental acuity and curiosity remain as robust as ever and it was wonderful to trade stories with one of my mentors in group dynamics. As much as anyone, I learned from Mildred—and my many visits to Ganas during the 90s, when my daughter lived there part time—about the interplay of emotions and rationality and the incredibly devious ways we humans have learned to deflect feedback about how we are perceived (information we desperately need, yet consistently resist).

Like social activists everywhere, Mildred and I are both interested in the question of how to use our time, experience, and energy most effectively in helping to manifest a world that works better for everyone. Not surprisingly, we are going about it in different—though hopefully complementary—ways. Mildred has been working for years on a book that will represent a distillation of a lifetime of work in group dynamics. At the same time, she's trying to inspire political activism among people who think deeply about the issues of our times. She's testing the waters through a website, Activists Solutions, which she and Dave launched last fall. While she's experiencing the same challenge we all face (how will would-be activists distinguish the wheat of her site from the chaff of so many others?), she's determined in the attempt. Her hope is to inspire a number of small groups (think in terms of Margaret Mead's fundamental unit of social change) to undertake the articulation and implementation of solutions to societal challenges, while at the same time staying linked with one another. I wish her well.

For my part, I'm excited about what we've been learning in the crucible of intentional community about how people can respond with curiosity and openness (rather than combativeness and mistrust) in the presence of non-trivial disagreement. To the extent that we've learned how to turn around these classic moments of divisiveness, I have hope about social change. While I think that separation is always an option, too often groups choose it because they are afraid of conflict, or have not yet discovered or mastered the skills to remain open in the heat of the moment. I believe we can (and must) do better.

I don't know if we've learned enough (or if I can teach it fast enough) to a world going to hell in a handcart, yet I can think of no more pivotal contribution I can offer in the service of a better world—one group after another, one meeting at a time.

I don't know when I'll see Mildred next, or what she'll be thinking about when I get there, but I can be certain there will be both nourishing food for both thought and something good to eat. Jewish radicals are like that.

No comments: