Leaning into online struggles

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The fourth time I got a call from the principal’s office, I knew I had to rethink our school year. One of our kids was having a tough time in class, and I had already made several visits to the teacher, the classroom and the principal’s office. Not only was I worried about my kid, I was also stressing out on the work front (after ducking out of a couple of meetings to make emergency trips to school) and at home (where Rob and I were in daily negotiations over how to handle successive crises). If only I could find the magic switch that would make school days an effortless, serene experience for both kids, we could get back to our real life: you know, the life in which I drop the kids in the morning, press pause on my life as a parent, and resume family life at 5:30 for a few delightful hours each evening.

After that fourth call, it was time to let go of the fantasy. This, it seems, is the new reality: a reality in which the daily challenges of school are my challenges as well as my kids’. Instead of the emergency visits that might come at any time, we decided to schedule daily visits to school, so both we and our kids would know when one or the other parent was going to appear. We told the teacher to count on our regular arrival time, and to set aside work we could do to be helpful while we were in the classroom. We opened our calendars, and made a schedule of who would cover which days. We stopped resisting, and decided to lean in.

“Leaning in” is the practice of accepting what you have tried to avoid, resist, or struggle against. As Tara Brach puts it in Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha,

As we lean in, we are inviting, moving toward what we habitually resist. Leaning in allows us to touch directly the quivering, the shakiness, the gripping tightness that is fear. Whether it is a familiar but vague feeling of anxiety or a strong surge of fear, leaning in can help us become aware and free in the midst of our experience.

Leaning in is a practice I have explored before, at other moments when life has presented challenges that I failed to avoid, escape or overcome. The job that exhausted and depressed me but which I couldn’t bear to quit. The romance that sagged with the weight of weekly conversations about a possible breakup. The family relationship that was profoundly estranged, but not totally abandoned. Each time I leaned in — allowing myself to hate the job, suspend the continual evaluation, admit the absence — space opened up, and the relationship shifted.

Yet it’s a practice I must rediscover each time, almost as if I’d never had this lesson. Only when every other avenue has closed do I remember that acceptance is still an option. And only with that acceptance do I discover that it brings not simply relief, but often great joy.

As I’ve renewed my acquaintance with this experience of leaning in, I’ve found myself wondering how it might apply to life online. There are so many online challenges that we resist or struggle against, trying to return to some extinct (and often idealized) version of a pre-Internet existence.

The most immediate example is no further than your inbox. How I’ve struggled with the onslaught of email, even going so far as to declare a vendetta! And yet the one person I know who seems to have made peace with that onslaught is a colleague who told me that he makes a point of processing every single message he receives, and responding to every single email that warrants an answer. The rest of his life bends around this core commitment. When he described this practice to me, it seemed somewhere between unfathomable and crazy, but now I see it: he’s leaning in.

Of course, it’s not always obvious what leaning in would actually look like. If you’re overwhelmed by the pressure to blog, tweet and Facebook, does leaning in mean committing to a daily practice on all three fronts? Or does it mean taking a social media break, and giving yourself the freedom to live offline? If you’re obsessed with your Klout, do you throw yourself into reaching the highest number, or throw in the towel and go Klout-less? If you dread what feels like a mandatory email session each weekend, do you go entirely offline from Friday night to Monday morning, or carry your Blackberry and set it to buzz you as soon as a message arrives?

I think you’ll know the answer when you embrace one of those apparent extremes. If you’re still struggling and suffering, you’ve probably leaned the wrong way. If you’ve given yourself fully to that choice, and you find that the sense of struggle has evaporated, you’re on the right track — even if the act of leaning in takes a lot of work in and of itself. There’s a difference between work and struggle.

In our recent struggle at school, leaning in has been nothing short of transformative. After years of waving vaguely to the gaggle of girls that greet my daughter at the edge of the school grounds, I’m joining them for lunch and learning their names, their favourite foods and their latest gossip. I know which of my son’s classmates need reminders to put on their outdoor shoes, and who needs help opening a thermos. When we sit down to dinner as a family, I know which of the day’s events to ask about, and which are better left forgotten.

And instead of dreading the ringing phone that tells me an emergency visit is once again required, I get the joy of anticipating a midday break with a bunch of wriggling, joyful kids. Some of the best moments of the past weeks are those I’ve spent in an elementary school classroom: introducing kids to the grasshopper who appeared in our laundry hamper, thinking up math puzzles that speak to the division of cupcakes, teaching little ones to draw a triangle. They’re not experiences I would have sought out, or even imagined I’d enjoy. But in leaning in, I’ve not only found relief from a painful struggle, but delight in discovering new parts of myself.

5 Comments on this site

  1. ebbandflo

    i also enjoy the interaction with my son’s school life; it’s fun being waved hello by his friends or addressed in serious tones as former classmates reintroduce themselves. i ty to stay in touch and involved.
    we’ve had troubles with classroom behaviour and mild bullying. i try to present the family face of my son, to show that he’s not in isolation. i think it does help, though it can feel like bashing one’s head against that brick wall at times.

  2. Eric Andersen

    Great post as always, Alex! I will say there is an element of passivism to this, i.e. are you really just letting the problem continue vs focusing on finding an eliminating the root cause. Now I wouldn’t say it is or isn’t the right approach in every situation, but just something worth considering. The email example is a good one. While “leaning in” might work, it also might be reducing focus on other things, therefore impacting overall job performance, fulfillment, etc. A totally different solution, e.g. moving your team away from email and onto an online collaboration tool instead, might be a better overall solution. Just a thought.

  3. Raul Pacheco

    I bumped into the work of Dr. Brene Brown on the power of vulnerability earlier this year and I loved it ever since. She mentioned a similar phrase that coincidentally I’m listening to right now. She says that the mantra of social work is “leaning in to the discomfort of the work”. Leaning in is a great strategy. The mere act of embracing what we have wanted to avoid makes us champions already: we overcame our desire to be perfect and instead have chosen to be imperfect people. People who have only 24 hours a day (as I sadly discovered last week when I slept 9 hours over the course of 3 days). 

    Saying NO is something I struggle with, and the more I say it the more I enjoy it. I am glad you’re leaning in to saying NO. To being in the moment fully and to not struggle to do a gazillion things. Because, much as we should love our work life, we should probably also realize that we will never say when we are in our death beds “I wish I had spent more time working”. 

    Good for you for leaning in. 

  4. Jeanette Kramer

    Thank you for this post. A much needed reminder!

  5. Jeanette Kramer

    Thanks for this post. A much needed reminder!

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