Transcript: CNN Political Analyst Kirsten Powers (Contributor to Anderson Cooper 360° & CNN Tonight with Don Lemon), On The Role of Grace in a Time of Collective Despair – From Her New Book Saving Grace

Keisha Blair: Welcome to the Holistic Wealth Podcast. I’m your host Keisha Blair, wife, mother of three, author of Holistic Wealth and Founder of the Institute on holistic wealth. The show will showcase various experts in the key pillars of holistic wealth. Each week, we deliver the best information on how to become holistically wealthy and live your best life.

Today we have a very, very special guest with us. We have Kirsten Powers and Kirsten is a USA Today Columnist, Senior Political Analyst for CNN, where she appears regularly on Anderson Cooper 360, CNN Tonight with Don Lemon and the Lead with Jake Tapper. Her writing has been published in the Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, the New York Observer, Salon, The Daily Beast, the New York Post, and many more publications. Her new book is entitled Saving Grace: Speak Your Truth, Stay Centered and Learn To Co-exist With People Who Drive You Nuts. Kirsten, Welcome to the show. It’s great to have you here.

Kirsten Powers: Thanks for having me. It’s so good to be here. 

Keisha Blair: it’s great to have you. And so, I have been diving into your book. Took it to physio with me, to pick up the kids and I’ve just been enthralled. So, it makes me so happy that your story aligned with mine. And so that’s why I’m so happy to have you here. And so, I just want to start off with a bit about your journey and what was the inspiration about this book?

Kirsten Powers: While the inspiration for the book was posted in 2016, just hitting a wall and realized that I could not go on the way I was going on. I was just filled with rage and contempt and I was physically unwell. I was suffering from chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. I was anxious. I was just unhappy. And I also really realized that my behaviour and the sort of soundtrack of doom that was running in my head that was filled with all the judgment and labelling of other people was not aligned with my beliefs.

And so I felt like I need to get my behaviour and my brain aligned with what I say I believe, which is not this contempt for humanity that I have. And so that’s really what started this journey was an act of justice. It was just an act of desperation, truly where I just felt like, how do I turn this ocean liner in a different direction?

Keisha Blair: I know and there’s so much there that resonates with all of us. And it’s unbelievable because the conversations that I know I have in my household, right are some of the very themes in your book. It’s just the way we’re polarized and the conversation with the last elections and the United States, the political ideology, race in North America, not just in the United States, but here in Canada, too. And religion and all of that’s intertwined. And I love how you blend the inspiration from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And other civil rights activists. I just wanted to start off with that in terms of where we’re at in terms of the state of the world. I feel like every time we go down a certain road, we go farther down the rabbit hole.

Like we’re sinking deeper into despair. And this is why your book, Saving Grace is so amazing for the times we’re in. And I know from my own personal journey, it was only the grace of God that brought me through after my husband died. And so I wanted to say how meaningful your book will be for so many people, but Kirsten, how did you draw that inspiration from those civil rights activists? And how can we move forward from the despair, in which so many of us are in right now?

Kirsten Powers: I really found a lot of inspiration from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther king Jr. From John Lewis. I interviewed Ruby Sales for the book because when I would get into these spirals and I would even think about my faith and what I believe, I say, I, I believe in loving your neighbor and loving your enemies and all these other things. And I was so far away from being loving. And I actually was hating people and I actually didn’t even care. I mean, I think that’s the most important point and I sort of felt like, okay, I get that, that’s what we’re supposed to do, but like, God just doesn’t get what’s happening here. And we just can’t do that. And so then I would think about it and think, well, yeah, of course, Jesus was actually dealing with some pretty heavy stuff.

I thought, well, I need some human beings who have actually applied this in real life. And the people who I find the most inspiring are the civil rights heroes and icons, because there’s no way anything that’s happening to me now, I can only speak to me. Other people have different experiences, but there’s no way that is happening is anything like what they were dealing with personally, right? And yet, because of their faith and because they also studied. And they really believed in nonviolence and that includes nonviolent language. And if they believed in loving your enemies and loving all of humanity, despite the fact that a lot of humanity, didn’t love them, and did not see the humanity in them. And didn’t even think they should have basic rights. And were treating them horrifically. It’s just again, so above and beyond anything I could ever experience. And so, I couldn’t reasonably say. I couldn’t do some approximation of this in my life. Do I ever think I’m going to be like MLK or John Lewis?

I don’t, but I think that I could do something that was a little bit better than what I was doing. And so those were people that I could come back to and say, oh, these are real people who dealt with real things and actually caused change in society, right? And so, I received so much sustenance from reading them or interviewing Ruby Sales, explaining that when you hate other people, you’re just hurting yourself. And you’re just being dragged low down to a place that you don’t want to be. Nobody gains from that. And it’s not even about them, right? It’s about what are you doing to yourself? What are you allowing into your heart? So, yeah, I really, it really reoriented.

How We Weaponize Grace to Force Others Into Submission

Keisha Blair: You can tell while you’re reading the book as well, you know how it’s integrated throughout, which is amazing. And early in the book you talk about not weaponizing, certain groups are, you know, using grace to weaponize others. That really touched me deeply just because of the situation with the polarization in North America and America, too, with different groups. I wanted to get your perspective on that, or, you know, not only the weaponizing, but also forcing other groups into sublimation because of how we apply grace. And that also really stuck with me as we think about anti-racism and the George Floyd racial protests that happened. If you could give us your perspective on that, that would be great?

Kirsten Powers: I think we have a really grave misunderstanding of grace. A lot of people have a misunderstanding of what it is. They think it’s sometimes means being nice or letting people get away with things, or just letting things go. And it can mean that, of course, right. Sometimes maybe with your spouse, you have grace for them because they leave their socks on the floor or something. But when things are happening at a stomach level, when people are being oppressed, when people are being harmed, then grace looks like accountability.

It looks different than the kind of accountability that we sometimes see. And I really use the criminal justice system as a model for it is why I think in America, we have such a hard time even understanding this because our criminal justice system is so graceless, we don’t see the humanity in people. It sees them as the thing they did. Right. The punishment rarely fits the crime. It’s so inhumane. It’s so unjust. And so I think that, of course, if you do something wrong, if you break a law, a law that is an unjust law, then you should be held accountable, but you shouldn’t have your whole life annihilated, which is essentially what we do to people who haven’t really done anything that’s that bad.

I think in our broader culture, sometimes there is a desire to kind of annihilate people in terms of annihilating their reputation, annihilating either their chance of ever working again, because they’ve done something that is gravely wrong, they should be held accountable. Absolutely. But, but how do we do that in a way that’s proportionate and that actually could potentially change our culture.

So, I think, if you’re a person who comes to grace, as other people need to be giving me grace, you’re really on the wrong track. So, if you’ve come here to say you know, the biggest problem in our country is so-called cancel culture, well, that’s not, I don’t think that is the biggest problem in our country.

You could say that some of the things that happen under the rubric of cancel culture are a problem, but there’s no way that that is as problematic as racism. There’s no way that as, as problematic as homophobia or misogyny, it just isn’t. And so, we shouldn’t be going to people and say, you need to be giving me more grace or people like me, more grace, we should be saying, how can I give grace in this situation? And that’s what this book is about.

It’s not about making demands on other people. If you are demanding grace from other people, you have just missed the whole story. It is not about that. And if you’re in a relationship, it’s when. If I was to say to my partner, come on, give me some grace. Like I messed up. That’s one thing. But if you have just done something and you’re in trouble and you come out and you’re like, give me grace. It’s like, people were like, I don’t even know you. Right. So, I think that that’s on the rest of us to try to create a culture of grace and to say, what does grace look like in this situation?

Sometimes grace can look like somebody losing their job. Right. I think it’s a big deal when that happens, but sometimes, sometimes that’s what accountability looks like. Sometimes accountability looks like they have to go to sensitivity training. It depends on a lot of different things, but I, I just, it’s so important to me that this idea is not used to throw marginalized people under the bus.

Cumulative Trauma, Massive Disruption and Grace

Keisha Blair: You know, I just wanted to go back to your first response coming into this interview about the state of despair and how we’re collectively kind of in that state now during COVID 19 and in your book, you mentioned cumulative trauma and it’s so unbelievable, right? That many of us like myself included have been through massive disruption starting, maybe in our early lives. And now with COVID-19. I think most of us, can say that we’ve been through massive disruption. And so that term “cumulative trauma” actually spoke to me too, with your story and how you mentioned in the book that you suffered grief starting in your early or in your mid thirties, rather grief from your father’s death, your grandmother’s. And then from your divorce. And I just wanted to ask you to just expand on that a bit, because I thought the whole concept too was amazing. And you mentioned taking this quiz that I didn’t even know existed, but it’s out there, which is amazing for people to know this. But, if you could just share a bit of your story, Kristin, that would be amazing in terms of that aspect.

Kirsten Powers: I realized early on, and I sort of knew this intuitively that, when you go, I don’t know if you’re on Twitter or not, but if you go on Twitter and sometimes you just think, what are people doing? I don’t. And then I, and I start to look at myself and I was like, I’m grown. Why am I acting like this? And you know, if my niece has acted like this thinking get grounded. And so, I started looking at it and I thought, I think there’s a lot of people who have issues that need to be dealt with. And I realized I was one of them. And as I delved into it, and I learned about trauma, I realized that I had a lot of trauma in my past.

I think I misunderstood trauma to mean it has to be like made for Hollywood horrific kind of things. And that’s not true, it could really be almost anything. It’s not event specific it’s person specific. So, what’s traumatic for one person might not be traumatic for another person. And so, when I dealt with that trauma, I had some childhood trauma.

I also had what you talked about in my thirties, where I just had this succession of deaths, my father, my grandmother, and my stepfather. It all happened within four years and it really just rocked me and people who haven’t dealt with, trauma, who haven’t integrated. Their trauma is very prone to binary thinking. And they’re always looking for the monster and this is what I was doing. It’s like find the monster to make yourself safe. So, you’re the good person and they’re the bad people. And I think we’re already, at least in the United States, I can’t speak to Canada. We’re already primed to think that way. That’s how we’re taught to think.

Our electoral system is completely binary. A lot of our religious teachings are very binary. So, we come into it already thinking that way. It makes you even more inclined to do that. So people are going to be even more inclined to do that after COVID right. Because that is going to trigger things in you. It’s going to trigger previous trauma. It’s going to create new trauma and it’s all going to sort of accumulate. And it’s going to put you in a position where it’s very hard to offer other people grace, because you just don’t have the capacity to do it.

You’re just trying to stay afloat. And yeah, and you’re doing these things, your brain just wants you to feel safe. So your central nervous system is reacting in a way to keep you safe. And so you have to heal that you have to be aware of it. You have to integrate it, and you have to do a lot of other things also that I talk about in the book about staying grounded and learning how to be nonjudgmental. But until you deal with that trauma, I don’t know, I can only speak for myself. I didn’t have the capacity to do those things. That was the real turning point for me was when I integrated that I suddenly felt so much more space. You know, there’s like a spaciousness where I could start to see people in a different way.

Keisha Blair: Yeah, absolutely. And you also spoke to in the beginning about the various diagnoses that you got, like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and just working through that process, which is a difficult process. I just wanted to ask you about that as we all navigate this pandemic that we’re in now, and in terms of our mental health and how we cope with these things that sometimes are just out of scope with our understanding, the things that are happening are not things that we thought were in our scope of belief.  

They’re outside of the scope of anything that we could have ever imagined. And so how we process those events in our lives and how we deal with that, you know, and, you know, and build up, let’s say our resilience muscles and build up that capacity to have grace for others. As you mentioned, but I wanted to start though with your journey, with that aspect in terms of those different diagnoses and how you navigate through all of that.

Epstein-Barr virus, Chronic Lyme disease, And Fibromyalgia

Kirsten Powers: Sometimes when I think about it, I’m just like, it was about a decade of just being so sick and not knowing what was wrong, going to every doctor and having them either tell you that nothing was wrong. Like they do your blood work and be like, you’re very healthy. And I’d be like I get out of bed. And why am I in constant physical pain? And I was then diagnosed with Epstein-Barr virus, chronic Lyme disease, fibromyalgia. And there wasn’t really, now of course there were, I was prescribed the whole cocktail of medications for Lyme disease, but there was something in me that just felt like it wasn’t right. I just felt like, no, I don’t think this is it. And so I never did that. And with Epstein-Barr, there’s really nothing. There is nothing they can give you. So I was sort of going along and I was just, very hopeless because it felt like, you know, in the beginning you think, well, this is going to pass or I’m going to figure it out.

And then years go by and you’re just like, it’s still here. And I had brain fog and I had anxiety and all these things. And I mean, life was just a struggle. Every day I got out of bed and I felt like I had like an 800 pounds of rocks on my bed. And it was when a friend of mine who was having a Sperry similar experience, discovered someone named Dr. Sarno, who has written all these books about psychosomatic pain and fatigue. And these other things that I started to make the connection that it was trauma-based and his theory is that the psychosomatic – and just to clarify what psychosomatic means because I used to think when people would say, you’re just imagining it, but that’s not what it means.

Psychosomatic means your brain is firing off things that is making your body do things. So, you absolutely have the pain. You absolutely have the fatigue. It’s not saying that it’s just that it’s not rooted in any kind of nothing in your body, broken per se. And so, his theory is that all of these psychosomatic things come from repressed rage. So that sort of opened me up to that. And then I read “The Body Keeps Score” and these different books. And so, I finally came around to really being a hundred percent convinced that it was based in unprocessed and unintegrated trauma. And I got a therapist who was trauma informed, and I went to a place called On-Site in Tennessee and did a week-long program.

As I started to integrate my trauma, that’s when everything changed. And I can tell you, now I’m sitting here, I’m completely healthy. I sleep eight hours a night. I don’t take naps. I have energy. I don’t have anxiety. I do take Lexapro. So, I want to be open about that. But even when I was taking Lexapro before I still had anxiety, it just was a little less worse. But now I really don’t have that. I don’t have. I don’t have any pain. I don’t have any fatigue. It’s just, it’s miraculous. And I have a much, like I said, I have a much greater capacity to give people grace to actually look at them and say, you’re allowed to not be me and not be demonized. I can name problems.

I can see the problem. I can say how I feel. I can do all those things, but I don’t have to demonize you and label you and put you in the bad person basket. I can always see. You as a full person and always see the possibility in what could be, because some people are doing really bad things.

Let’s be honest. And I can always see the possibility. And I think it developing humility is so critical to this process because when you look at another person and you say, how could they do that? Or whatever, you’re suggesting that you’ve never done anything or that you’ve never believed anything problematic. Right? And so it’s very helpful to go back through your past and look at the places where you have actually caused harm to other people where you have hurt other people where you have believed things that you now know are wrong and recognize that people are really doing the best that they can with the tools that they have.

They may not know better than Maya Angelo quote is “you did the best you could, you know, with the tools you had”, and I’m paraphrasing, but you know, and when you knew better, you did that.

Suicide Ideation and Mental Health Issues

Keisha Blair: Yeah, I know for sure. And that’s so amazing to hear that after a decade, all of that’s resolved and you’re healed. And so that’s great. And so, I know even on this podcast, we’ve had people who’ve come on and we’ve discussed issues of like suicide ideation, things like that. And I wanted to get your perspective on that. As well, because you, you also tackled it in the book, which I thought was powerful. You know, even during this pandemic, people are suffering and I wanted to get your views on that. And in your book, you mentioned the Anthony Bourdain, how his death had impacted all of us. So, can you tell us a bit about how you came through that, Kristin, what was that like for you?

Kirsten Powers: Suicidal ideation? It was when my father died and he died suddenly of a heart attack at age 61. And so, this was a while ago. I was 35, so it was 15 years ago. And so, I don’t actually know how I thought through that because it was just such a horrible time. And I didn’t really have a lot of tools and I didn’t know about trauma and I didn’t have spirituality or faith or anything like that. So, I sort of muscled my way through it.

And the point of that story in the book really is that you just never know what’s going on with people. Because when I wrote my column about Suicidal Ideation around the deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate spade, and I said, I had experienced this people who I was with every day at that time were just shocked. They had no idea. I didn’t tell a single person. And so we don’t just don’t know what’s going on in other people’s lives. And when people are often behaving badly, it’s because there are things that are going on in the background that we don’t know about. And so I think a lot of when I look back on things I did that I think are toxic. It really grew out of that trauma and that’s not an excuse. I’m still accountable for what I did or what I said, but there is another story to why people are doing it. And if you can have grace for that, and again, maybe call them in a little bit versus calling them out. It’s more humane and it’s, and it might actually help the issue that you’re interested in.

So, I think we have to talk more about suicidal ideation so people know that a lot of people face this. We often only hear about the people who end up being successful, right, and it becomes a news story because somebody has ended their life. But what we don’t talk about are all the people. It’s so many more people who have struggled with that and who came out on the other side and are happy and living fulfilled lives and are so happy that they weren’t successful.

So that’s why I talk about it publicly is because I want people to know that it does get better. And I certainly have been in the situation all sorts of times in my life, that time when I had the illness, which really did grow out of the trauma of all the deaths and my divorce. I really got to the point where I was like, I can’t, I can’t do this.

This can’t be the rest of my life. I can’t sleep 14 hours a day and get up and barely be able to get out of bed and can’t think straight and feel anxious and all these things. I can’t do this. It was unimaginable that my life would be the way it is today. Unimaginable. I pinch myself almost every day. How healthy I am and how happy I am. Right? Despite everything that’s happening in the world that I have learned how to care about things and to be engaged without being miserable, which just always seemed impossible.

Pathways To Repair and Allyship

Keisha Blair: Yes absolutely. So Kirsten in the book, you talk about pathways to repair, and I want to couple that with allyship as well, because, you know, you mentioned the release of the documentary entitled “Framing Brittany Spears”, and how, you know, Justin Timberlake for instance, came under attack for the way he had contributed to the treatment, you know, this misogynistic treatment of Brittany and he apologized, I think, saying that he did receive preferential treatment because of his status as a performer and a white male. As we navigate this pandemic. We’re navigating all sorts of polarizing issues. Just wandering about not only the pathways to repair, but how we can be better allies and to each other and actually follow through on the actions.

In your book Saving Grace, you made some references to, you know, going a bit further than, you know, just posting something on social media?

Kirsten Powers: Yeah. One thing that we don’t really see a lot of in our culture is sincere repentance. We see apologies, but repentance is really a multi-layered process. I, and I lay it out in where you really empathize with the other person. And if you, if you’re truly a repentant, you will have changed behavior. And so of course, I think apologizing publicly is very important and I think it was good to have, for example, in that instance with Justin Timberlake to name the preferential treatment that he received, because that’s important for everybody to see and understand, and he has such influence in this culture.

For somebody who’s really empathizing because of course this is still going on. It’s not over, right. It’s not as though women have achieved a quality or something. And so, it’s not as though there aren’t double standards for women in the entertainment industry. So, if I was friends with Justin Timberlake or if he came to me and said, what would be a way to really show that I’m repentant?

I would say, well, why don’t you start an organization that’s dedicated to support women who are marginalized in the entertainment industry? You’re so powerful. You have so much influence. Why don’t you use your power and influence to actually help women or help other marginalized people in the industry? Right? So, it’s, I think it will usually follow that we’re doing things that make us better allies. And so, to be an ally, isn’t just posting something. It’s art. What are you doing in your own life? How are you changing the people that you hire? How are you changing? You know, how you treat the people around you and those kinds of things. I think that’s what allyship is really about.

Keisha Blair: Absolutely. Those are some good tips for that. And you mentioned repentance, which is so fundamental to Christianity, and I have to ask you about your own Christian journey before we go. And you mentioned a trip and that transformative experience and how that played a role in terms of your Christian journey.

Kirsten Powers: Well, I had a very radical spiritual transformation because I had been sort of going back and forth between agnostic and atheist. Sometimes I was totally atheist and I was like, there’s nothing as crazy to even think there’s something. And then sometimes I’d be like, I don’t really know, but probably nothing. And I had this very radical, spiritual transformational where I suddenly realized that there was something. And it really shifted my life. I was attending a white evangelical church at the time with a boyfriend and they were really the only Christians that I knew I was living in New York city in Manhattan.

And most of my friends were atheists or maybe nominally Christian going to church occasionally, but it wasn’t, I wouldn’t say anybody was particularly religious or spiritual. And so, I was like, well, these people seem to know what they’re talking about. They’re the only people I know who are talking about this kind of stuff. And so, I started going to church there and it ultimately ended up not being a great experience for me. And that’s another story. But what I realized was I did have a real experience. I just didn’t know where to go with it. And so eventually I ended up leaving evangelicalism. I became Catholic and I found a spiritual director who’s a Jesuit priest who I write about in the book, father Martin.

I discovered Richard Rohr who’s a Franciscan priest who is really who I learned everything about in terms of how to think in a non-binary way and to let go of this idea that I know everything and that everything can just fit into this nice little box, particularly our faith and Jim Martin really helped me through embracing the idea of missing and that I didn’t have to know everything in order to have a faith or because I would just really approach it almost like a math problem. That’s not really how you can approach spirituality or faith. And so, I had a really great shift in my spiritual life because of that, where I went from really feeling like, I don’t think I can be a Christian anymore because I just can’t relate to how many Christians behave. And obviously I had lots of issues with the Catholic church and all these things. And then father Martin sort of walked me back from that ledge and said, you don’t have to know everything. It’s not an all or nothing. There can be things you disagree with and that you find very problematic and even harmful.

You can also recognize that there are all these other things that are really wonderful, right. So, it did really stabilize me. And I feel like I now have the right container and a healthier faith. That’s very nourishing to me and doesn’t pit me against other people, which is what I felt like I had before. And I’m not saying that was the intent. Necessarily. I just think that that was the effect on me. And so, I feel that I’m finally in a really, really good place where I have embraced the contemplative spirituality of Catholicism. And it’s, it’s really. It’s really life giving to me.

Keisha Blair: That’s amazing and such a great story, Kirsten. It was so wonderful having you here to share your insights with our audience about your journey and your story. And I think it’s going to help so many, including the book and for those who are listening in the book is out on November 2nd. And it’s available right now. You can pre-order it right now as you’re listening. And so, Kristin, thank you so much for joining us.

Kirsten Powers: Thank you for having me. This was such a wonderful conversation.

Keisha Blair: It was and I enjoyed it thoroughly and good luck with the book launch and with Saving Grace. It’s such an amazing book, such an amazing book. So thank you so much.

Kirsten Powers: Oh, thank you. That means so much to me. Thanks for having me.

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