• Sherry P. Johnson

You Can't Push a River.

My last blog post was nine weeks ago. It feels like a lifetime.


In some ways, it feels like I was raised for this time, as toughness was burned into me. I was born in a rust belt town to a blue-collar mom and a military dad haunted by Agent Orange, PTSD, pointless white rage, and depression. I held the house together with Dawn dish soap, duct tape, and attempts at mediation. When that got too much, my grandmother lived down the block, where she taught me how to bake, garden, make clothes, repair everything, and argue like a German.


I yearned for the day I could explore past the point my rusty Toyota could take me on rolling backroads, and I finally boarded a ship called Valedictorian... back when state colleges floated scholarships for those things. I spent college acting, dancing, singing, flirting, renting costumes, and fitting bridal gowns. Tutored and taught.


Then I became a teacher, when I produced impossibly ambitious high-school theatrical productions as a small-town drama teacher at a school surrounded by corn and soyfields. After marrying into the Big City, I said goodbye to my rural students with a perfect rendition of "Sweet Child O' Mine," sung by their request at the final cast party. I said hello to suburban students with more, impossibly ambitious theatre in the Twin Cities, a colder place with a colder-but-nice culture.

About 10 years ago, I became a mom, yoga teacher, and community organizer... until I had to hit somebody really hard on a roller derby track just to release the pent-up workaholism I'd built my identity around. Just as my nervous system was aligning, my spouse's job moved to Seattle, where for five years, I built up a struggling training business and joined a high-powered public sector consulting firm.


But I grew to hate the trap of Manifest Destiny after crashing midlife with an autism diagnosis. I was just too tired to keep pushing harder and flying higher.

Then we moved back home, to this cold-but-nice Minnesotan culture, where I founded Cultivate Strategy around the assertion that everyone needs two things: to belong, and to know their worth. Life isn't about what one builds. It's about building with others as you build belonging. Life isn't about what you achieve. It's about achieving a sense of worth so deep that you cannot help seeing the deep worth of others, as well.

Everyone needs two things: to belong, and to know their worth.

But COVID-19 has tested all of us. As I attend online gatherings these days, I fear we're forgetting all about human belonging and worth. I see us rushing into action even as creativity becomes impossible to access. We're staring into our webcams that emphasize our marks of sleeplessness and loss, without giving time to air collective grief. We apologize for our children and our cats and our screen backgrounds. We push. We pretend. We stay silent, afraid of interrupting others, so we keep the mute button on longer... and longer...


And then there's facilitation. Can good facilitators do this virtual thing? Yeah, in a pinch. We can apply principles, learn platforms fast, discover new heuristics. We highlight engagement platforms like Zoom, Teams, Webex... We play in sandboxes like Mural, Miro, Whiteboard... We evangelize project-management apps like Slack, Trello, Bootcamp... But at the end of the day, we can lose sight of what we're doing.


We're engaging with human beings, in a human system, where everyone and everything is sick.


I know from experience what every autist with a mid-life crash knows: Sooner or later, we won't be able to keep this up. I'm taking a lot lately from Richard Rohr's wonderful book, Everything Belongs, where he says,

"I tend to be overfocused, and I hate it because then I'm not really feeling anymore. I'm into goal-orientation, trying to push or even create the river--the river that is already flowing through me. Faith does not need to push the river precisely because it is able to trust that there is a river. The river is flowing; we are in it."

I'm going to try to keep writing to unpack this some more, but for now, I'll leave you with this encouragement: If you have faith in human dignity, it's never too late to ask people how they are. Don't stop trying. You can interrupt anything to do it. Just be sure to make space for the answer.

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