The Marin Post

The Voice of the Community

Blog Post

Lessons Learned from a Broken Arm

Yikes! It hurts. A broken arm changes everything. It requires new ways of collaborating to get anything done. And healing is a slow process as body starts immediately to return to homeostasis.

I probably have bragging rights for being the only a senior citizen who ever broke my arm at the Mill Valley Skateboard Park. I won’t go into details, but will instead use the incident to weave together lessons I’ve learned from a broken arm that might apply to the body politic.

1. What is broken hurts.

Even though x-rays show a minor fracture, it hurts. It hurts to bend, lift, extend, or grip, and it’s hard to use both hands, effectively.

Our political processes are also broken and hurting. The breaks show up as false narratives, outright deceit, and unfair economic and social norms. Our fractured communications, lack of public engagement, closed-door decision-making, and unequal access to justice add to the pain.

On the national level, the current impeachment hearings are a reminder of the “break-down” in the ability for politicians to accomplish anything on a mutual basis. Closer to home, the farcical process that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) has been promoting as “public engagement,” demonstrates a break from common sense.

Everyone is hurt when our system of representative government is broken. The hurt manifests itself as physical suffering such as homelessness, hunger, and injustices. It also takes the form of emotional suffering such as depression, alienation, and hopelessness. At the social level, we see a broken system result in apathy, addiction, and violence.

2. What is broken is often an accident.

Stumbling and falling at the skateboard park was an accident. With a generous heart, we might conclude that many of our political dilemmas have been created accidentally, too.

There are many examples of political processes that have worked well. But on occasion, the voters, city councils, boards, or legislators make decisions that have fractured the community. The accidental fractures could be due to making decisions without all the relevant information at hand or other reasons. The initial definition of the problem might be in error, or perhaps, the long-term impacts weren’t properly assessed. But when special interests hold sway over decision makers, that’s not by accident.

3. A broken arm, like broken political processes, changes everything.

With a broken arm, I’m unable to engage in normally easy tasks that require a range of motion, like getting dressed, washing my hair, or using a firm grip to open a bottle. Maneuvering these day-to-day things has become very time consuming and now takes some creativity.

Likewise in politics, when systems are broken, many things that should run smoothly and be accomplished without controversy become major obstacles. For example, successful social scientists, educators, engineers, and philosophers rely on collaborative problem solving, but this becomes impossible when equitable and inclusive political processes break down.

More and more, our state senators and assembly members approach voting on sweeping legislation, such as statewide mandates without reimbursement to the cities to cover the multitude of costs, based on preconceived notions and with closed minds. We’re told that “We have a housing crisis” and Cities are to blame” without enough reasonable debate.

When thoughtful deliberation is considered a waste of time, our public discourse is broken. If the metaphorical right and left hands of the housing dilemma were really listening to each other with an intention to collaborate, instead of demonizing one’s opponent to get one’s way, we would get more “pain-free,” long-term solutions.

Perhaps, “We have a housing crisis,” would change to “We have an affordability crisis.” Or, “Cities are to blame,” would change to “There are multiple causes for our shared affordability crisis. Let’s gather people with diverse expertise to look at key causes from diverse points of view.” And, finally, “We have to do something” might change to “We have to do what is the most fair and effective thing to do.”

This would invite constructive conversation about income and wage inequality, inequitable individual and corporate tax structures, and the influence of relentless profit-seeking and the financialization and commodification of housing.

Since 2008, California state legislators passed almost four-dozen housing bills. This approach has been called “a developer give-away,” and still the affordability crisis persists, homelessness continues to increase, and legislation to directly benefit low-income individuals, families, and communities remains pretty much non-existent.

4. A broken arm, like broken systems, requires new ways of collaborating to reach goals.

Pain is a great reminder of what’s doable and what’s not. My body screams with pain when I exceed its new parameters. Some people advocate taking pills to numb the pain in order to push through it. But that can have long-term, unwanted consequences.

My broken arm is teaching me about the need for slow, deliberate actions. And I'm hampered if I don’t fully engage both the left and right sides of our bodies. Maybe we should bring these lessons to politics to promote greater sensitivity to both sides of an issue—Republican and Democrats, progressives and conservatives, urbanites and suburbanites?

Consider these three guidelines learned from the body’s wisdom.

1. Move slowly. A broken arm and take time to heal and show progress. Passing forty-eight housing bills in three years is moving too fast to ensure positive outcomes.

2. Having help helps. My left hand is chipping in to compensate for me out-of-commission right arm. The different parts of my body work as a team. And, when we’re hurting family and friends offer to help.

Imagine what it would be like if our legislators took that kind of collaborative and inclusive approach and didn’t just push ahead with a ‘we-know-best’ attitude. Imagine if they provided more resources to empower local city councils and community leaders—the other members of the team--to plan for housing needs, environmental protection, and economic resiliency.

3. Improvise. They say, necessity is the mother of invention. In challenging times, we need to take risks, trust others, be more creative, and support thinking outside the box. We learn best when we start small and experiment.

The body can heal a fracture, mending a bone in a few months, by bringing all its resources to bear, in an optimal way. Perhaps our government representatives and agencies should take note. They might benefit from applying body’s wisdom to reduce pain and promote community healing by going slowly and employing more organic, inclusive methods to address our shared concerns.