I came back because I said I would

March 24, 2023

This is an excerpt of what I wrote about Mama Munda in my dissertation. She still defies description…


"Mama Munda Fortune looks like someone who has magical powers. Her wizened face and yellowed eyes frame a mouth that only has a few teeth left, jutting upward from her lower jaw, sharpened into pointy fangs by years of tooth decay. No more than five feet tall, she is a character of literary proportions. Ask anyone in Sierra Leone. Mama Munda created thousands of bulletproof fighters to fend off the chaos that threatened to devour her country from 1991 to 2002. As the legend goes, her power to protect men against bullets came from a devil named Kassela who appeared to her by the shore of a great body of water, and called upon her to help her people. She, and other magically empowered “initiators” like her, became the cornerstone of defensive militia mobilizations in which undergoing a bulletproofing ceremony was a defining rite of passage for those who became militia members.

I first met Mama Munda in February of 2012, at her house on the outskirts of Bo Town. Finding her was easy. I hailed a motorcycle taxi and asked the rider if he knew where to find Mama Munda Fortune. A quick glance at the scarification patterns on his bare arms told me what his answer would be. “Lo' go [let's go],” he said. I cannot say that Mama Munda was happy to meet me.” 


When she saw my white face, she started to yell at me in Mende -- a language I do not speak. I was mortified. She yelled and shook her fist, and the onlookers around her compound looked at me the way you might look at a parking enforcement officer who has just slipped a ticket under your windshield-wiper. I wanted to run away.

When the dust had settled, my interpreter Mo explained the whole situation to me, quoting her: "You white people, you come and you take what you need and you go away. You don't bring cold water.* You don't come back to visit and you don't even call."

*[In Mende, "cold water" is a gift given by a visitor, which conveys respect to the one visited and also an invitation into relational reciprocity.]

I asked Mo what he told Mama Munda to calm her down.

"I told her you were different. You're not like those other white guys. You care about people and about relationships." I don't know if Mo truly had the sense that I was different, or if he was just trying to make peace. But his words became a promise that I felt deeply bound to keep.

After a little more than 10 years, I came back. And I brought cold water. I came back for many reasons that I can feel in my body but can't yet describe. Above all, I came back because I said I would.

More has happened here than I presently understand. What I do understand is this:

I've come to live in defiance of the image of the impermeable, imperious white man who comes to extract what he wants, disrespects those who are not like him, and leaves nothing behind.

Speak the truth

March 11th, 2023

Speak the truth that you fear might end this relationship. This relationship only deserves to survive if it can withstand your truth.

There is a certain violence behind honesty. “Brutal honesty” is the best English expression that I can find for the intense heat and potential destruction that the truth can bring forward. But no truth, no change. This strikes me as a law of relational thermodynamics.

I’m coming to recognize in myself and others, a nearly fatalistic incrementalism that commits us to try to build a little acceptable house on top of a mountain of sh!t that we find unacceptable. And it is our fear of losing that relationship or job we are ambivalent about that prevents us from ever getting what we truly want.

“This isn’t working for me.”

For most (if not all) of us, these words sound like the prelude to destroying a relationship. And they can be.

But the goal of telling the truth is to destroy the illusion that we are getting our needs met. Beneath that illusion lives a secret terror that no one will ever be able to truly meet our needs. The terror says: “Why even ask? Save yourself the disappointment.”

No truth, no heat, no change.

Mediocre homeostasis does not give way in the face of oblique nudges to “please unload the dishwasher when it’s done.” And outright abuse sure as hell does not evaporate in the face of subtle hints and wishful thinking.

If the truth burns it to the ground, then it was made of lies.

Let it burn, friend. Then you will know you are safe to love what is left. 

Who are you in conflict?

September 2nd, 2022

I’ve been asking myself this question more lately as I attempt to lean in (rather than running away) during messy conversations.

Reflection reveals that there are at least two ways of running away from conflict:

The first is most obvious – “I can’t bear to be in conflict and so I pull away from someone who I am in conflict with.” Relationship analysts might categorize this as “avoidance.” Less time together. Less communication. Slower replies to text messages. Ghosting. Asking for a “break.” Or leaving the relationship altogether.

A second way of ‘running away’ from conflict is more subtle and internal – “I can’t bear to be in conflict and so I seek resolution immediately.” I will compromise my needs, values, or viewpoint if it means that the conflict can be brought to a swift and peaceful resolution. This approach is effective at preserving the relationship, but it also deprives both parties of a chance to deepen the relationship.

Under all of this conflict-avoidance is a belief that conflict threatens relationship. And perhaps also an internal narrative like: “If I am in conflict with someone I care about, that must mean that I am bad/wrong, or they are bad/wrong.” Fundamentally, this view of conflict is flawed.

Conflict is how we learn about each other as individuals. If we flee by withdrawing our love or flee by hiding our truth, we deprive others of the chance to truly get to know us. We are often quick to share all of the parts of us that overlap with others, because we have no fear of those parts being accepted. The parts that make us different and special are ironically the ones that we yearn for people to know and are also the most reluctant to share. These parts are individuated, messy, and have an unknown valence in the person who is sitting across from us.

These parts might get us into trouble.

These parts make us who we are.

Staying *with* conflict in loving curiosity is central to how we surface the tender truth of our selves to the people who we care about most.

Slow down and listen

August 21st, 2022

If you’re like me, the question “What do you want?” can feel like showing up to a test that you haven’t studied for. In the past, I’ve often deflected, saying something like: “I don’t know, what do you want?” Or sometimes I offered an answer that I thought would sound good to others.

That is very different from responding with what would truly feel good for me.

I’ve discovered that sometimes it takes both time and space for the truth of what I know to percolate upward from the center of my body.

Gradually, I’ve learned to breathe deeply and wait patiently for the answers to come. I have also learned to let others know what’s happening – that I’m considering their question and waiting for a response – so that they don’t feel ignored or abandoned as I turn inside for answers.

That’s step one. Slow down and listen. Silence is the best medium for growing awareness.

Step two is trusting the subtle wisdom of what is felt. 

Balance of power

July 3rd, 2022

A balance of power between warring parts is not the same as inner-peace.

Most of us experience some forms of internal polarization: for example, one part of me is proud of me and wants to brag about my accomplishments while another part of me is deeply concerned about managing what others think of me and resists saying, “don’t be cocky.”

If the proud part of me always wins, I’m boastful, always talking about myself.

If the circumspect part always wins, I never celebrate myself and I never share.

Extreme imbalances are easy to “work on” because they call our attention. In contrast, balanced polarities are sneaky and easy to bypass. After years of introspection and self-work, we might reach a point where neither of our polarized parts wins all the time. Maybe we’re close to a 50-50 balance. From the outside, this balance between a force that wants to act and a restraining force can appear to be peaceful. It is certainly functional. Socially acceptable, yes. Possibly quite likable.

The smarter we are and the more self-work we’ve done, the easier it is for us to use rational arguments or “spiritual” gloss to convince ourselves that we are above or beyond needing to examine something. “Oh, I’ve already looked at that, thank you.” We might even be able to convince ourselves and others that we hold a Zen equanimity on the topic.

But conflict is conflict. If there's a "cold war" inside you, there are consequences. Cold wars don't have many fireworks. They're just draining and inefficient. In theory, resolving such an internal conflict holds the promise of freeing up more energy for living, as well as more room for authenticity. Perhaps we also become less anxious because we lie less to ourselves and others.

This is deliciously subtle work. And if this seems too subtle, just let it go. My goal in writing and sharing this is not to convince you to fret about trifles or to fix something that already functions. Take it from me, perfection is a very shiny trap.

My personal goal is to see my inner life as clearly as possible. And that means shining a light on hidden burdens. 

Perils of growth

June 3rd, 2022

I don’t need you to be different so that I can be new.

Deep changes – in my lifestyle, my diet, my worldview – have often made me fearful about alienation.

Will I lose my friends or have my choices rejected or criticized by family members?

Will people stay connected with me but secretly resent me?

Will I alienate myself to preempt rejection from others?

I’ve had a few experiences to confirm these fears. When I adopted a “paleo” diet in 2010 and stopped eating gluten, some of my family members were scandalized. It’s still referred to as a dark period when “Jon didn’t eat carbs.” But on balance, I’ve experienced more acceptance than rejection.

The more challenging part has always been my own internal conflict:

I confess that I have been guilty of secretly resenting others for not changing when I change. I longed for them to be different (and more like me) so that I wouldn’t have to feel the separateness of having my own needs, or the confrontation of declining something when I used to say “yes” in order to ‘get along.’

In retrospect, I realize that so much of the subtle conflict that I imagined existed between me and others was illusory. The friction created by my new ways of thinking and being was primarily internal – a reflection of my own uneasiness at knowing that I felt new, but not yet feeling grounded or secure in who I was becoming. My own resentment and shame about my old ways of being was projected outward. It was as though I needed to make others wrong in order for my new choices to be right.

To be sure, I have gained and lost friends along the way. But the growing apart has never felt like a resentful rupture. And there is magic in realizing that I’ve always gained more than I’ve lost at each stage of my growth. My life now is replete with so many friendships, new and old. Varied lifestyles and conflicting viewpoints are no longer threatening in the ways they used to be.

As I have grown more comfortable with the mystery of my own growth, self-acceptance has gradually dissolved the illusion that difference necessarily creates distance. 

Who needs a coach?

April 27th, 2022

“I don’t need a coach/therapist because there’s nothing wrong with me.”

When I speak with people who have never had a coach or therapist and who are deeply resistant to the idea, I often encounter some formulation of the statement above.

It’s an effective argument for deflecting. If you deploy this argument and someone wants you to consider some form of self-inquiry or mentorship, they now need to convince you that there’s something wrong with you, without saying that there's something wrong with you. And that effectively shifts the discussion away from any of the valid reasons why you might truly benefit from mentorship, like increased joy, growth, freedom, and connection.

Here’s my direct response to “I don’t need a coach/therapist because there’s nothing wrong with me.”

Don’t worry. There’s nothing wrong with you. I love you just the way that you are. You’re also deeply flawed, just like me and everyone else. And I love you enough to tell you that your argument is wrong. You are worthy of growth for its own sake.

The problem is that somewhere along the way, we pathologized unhappiness. And now we’re afraid of the shadow of our own discontent.

One common coping mechanism is a defensive lack of curiosity, coupled with bland positivity.

Everything is “fine” because if it weren’t that would mean there is something wrong…with you.


This deflection comes at a price: Imagination ossifies. Possibility narrows. The past and the future become indistinguishable. Heart-felt aspirations are subtly dismissed as daydreams because they might upset the status quo.

To make room for greater curiosity:

Lovingly acknowledge the facts of your own imperfection and disaffection.

Lovingly embrace your worthiness and completeness in this moment.

Move between the two, like a pendulum, until they no longer feel quite so contradictory. 

I want to live for a living

March 11th, 2022

Nobody told me that I could grow up to be a monk.

Or that I could make a living through love life.

Or that I could serve everyone around me by exploring the deepest truth of my own self.

I remember a moment, as an undeclared undergraduate: Newly enamored with Aristotle and the idea of the “vita contemplativa,” I asked my philosophy professor what I could do with a Bachelors in philosophy. What I hoped for, in my heart, was to hear about careers in applied philosophy. I wanted someone to pay me to learn, grow, teach, and contemplate the great paradoxes.

I was told I could become a professor or a lawyer.

I ultimately got a PhD because it seemed like the only way I could get paid to learn, and I narrowly escaped becoming a professor. I became a researcher and evaluator. I wrote for a living. I learned for a living, but only about how other people’s experiences could be simplified and aggregated into facts that could be reported. God, I created and digested so much data! Literally thousands of pages of analysis.

But the only thing I can remember now are the people in Sierra Leone who told me their stories, and the people who listened to mine. I felt most alive when sitting with former combatants and being fully present to their personal histories and wartime traumas.

Now, I want to live for a living.

There is no model for this. I’ve burned my resume.

It’s scary at times. But now, finally, I trade in the currency of love and my own lived experience.