A Necessary Mess: Making Sense of George Floyd’s Senseless Death

The moment Derek Chauvin snuffed out the life of George Floyd in broad daylight for all the world to see may come to be recognized as the one when 400 years of efforts to smooth over brutal, violent systemic racism finally failed. If so, it may also come to be known as the moment when we as a country finally created space to descend into the messiness of a process that has threatened to destroy the American project. And with hope, by allowing the discord to happen, our country will harness the energy produced to fuel the necessary comprehensive work to dismantle structural racism and build a truly equitable society.

The irony of releasing a book titled The Power of Discord at a time when our country experiences unprecedented discord is not lost on me. In the book, co-authored with renowned developmental psychologist Ed Tronick, we looks to the first love relationship – that between parent and infant- to demonstrate how growth happens by engaging in rather than smoothing over the inevitable messiness of human relationships.

As a White person I feel uncomfortable speaking to something which I will never fully understand. Yet staying silent does not feel right either. Perhaps the discomfort is the point. I will make mistakes I am sure. But as our book describes, through the process of moving from misunderstanding to understanding, or from “mismatch” to “repair,” relationships grow. Empathy occurs across a vast space of not-knowing. We write, “When we aim to imagine our way into other people’s experiences while acknowledging we can’t really know, we can join them.”

In my second book The Silenced Child I address the way current systems of care can serve to silence the voices of both parents and children. I refer to one of the most famous quotes from To Kill A Mockingbird, when Atticus tell his daughter Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”  I now understand this as a description of an essential human characteristic, namely the ability to reflect on the meaning of another person’s behavior.  The enduring power of Harper Lee’s book speaks to the significance of listening, of taking time to try put ourselves in another person’s skin.

But as the new book explains, that process of listening will inevitably be imperfect. As individuals, each with a unique and separate sense of self, we will misread each other’s motivations and intentions. Yet that very not-knowing, a stance of curiosity along with a suspension of certainty, allows us to connect.

A classic psychological experiment by my co-author Ed Tronick, known as the “still-face paradigm,” demonstrated the tremendous capacity for connection infants bring with them into the world. This groundbreaking discovery along with the decades of research that followed, showed that we develop a core sense of hope when we move through countless moments of mismatch and repair in the typically messy interactions that characterize these first relationships. Beyond simplistic reassurances that we should be OK with mistakes, Tronick’s research demonstrates a more profound truth. Errors are necessary because they give opportunity for repair. The pleasure of repair provides the energy needed to fuel growth and development.

Tronick’s close colleague T. Berry Brazelton, renowned pediatrician and recipient of Obama’s Presidential Citizen’s Medal, revealed the value of periods of disorganization in healthy development.  The process of child development teaches us that disorganization and disruption are not only acceptable, but necessary to move forward to healing and growth. The lessons drawn from developmental research offer guidance for all relationships and for society as a whole. Our book states:

“A dangerous fear of difference pervades our world today. Yet the very messiness of a diverse society made up of varied races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations lies at the core of our nation’s strength. When we reach one another by listening, moving through the inevitable mismatch that such differences engender, the power of the repair gives us potential for greatness.”

The largely peaceful protests in response to George Floyd’s murder have been marked by countless small moments of connection. Across the country police officers joined protesters by taking a knee. In Flint, MI a sheriff removed his riot gear and joined the protesters march. These “moments of meeting” strung together over time will show a path forward. They allow for creation of new meanings of connection and belonging that disrupt and transcend previous meanings of fear and distrust.

In contrast, efforts to suppress the protests out will inevitably lead to worsening fear, anger, and hopelessness. The discord itself offers opportunity to build a new society characterized by connection and a sense of belonging. If we can allow ourselves to be in the mess, then George Floyd’s life will prove to have had great meaning.

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