Have you ever felt crushed or demoralized when someone challenged your beliefs? Like their different views condemned you, made you feel unheard, or incapable of finding common ground? Even when you knew writing them off completely was a lie?
I think we’ve all been there – facing the harsh judgment that comes with polarized perspectives. When a conversation turns to conflict instead of understanding, it’s easy to feel isolated and alienated. We question if we truly belong when others refuse to see our shared humanity.
But what if differing views weren’t something to avoid at all costs? What if, instead, they were an opportunity to grow in wisdom and compassion? A chance to find belonging by embracing the parts of ourselves that feel defensive or reactive?
My guest today, Melissa Carter, has devoted over a decade to exploring these ideas. As Senior Director for Global Spiritual Life at NYU, Melissa guides students to sit with discomfort and lead from.
In our conversation, she shares groundbreaking perspectives on reframing opposition as a tool for mutual understanding, rather than cancellation and polarization. Melissa offers techniques to overcome barriers that prevent belonging – to our highest values and each other.
She also dives deep into coexistence, distinguishing harm from disagreement, and sharing insights anyone can use to transform conflict into what she calls “intelligent differences” that illuminate a shared path forward.
If you’ve ever felt alienated by contrasting views, this episode will give you hope. Join me in learning how to turn life’s difficulties into gateways of belonging – starting from within ourselves, and radiating outward.
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Melissa Carter (00:00:00) – My whole story is about avoiding myself and avoiding really having to affirm that what society says about me, what my mother was saying about me, wasn’t true. And to stand in my truth with no validation other than myself. And that is hard. Be comfortable being uncomfortable because the second you can sit with what is, you have your own type of belonging that you can move from. And that’s really powerful to build a life from there.
Jonathan Fields (00:00:29) – So have you ever felt crushed or demoralized when somebody challenge your beliefs like their different views condemned you or made you feel unheard or incapable of finding any kind of common ground, even when you knew writing them off wasn’t really the answer either. So I think we’ve all been there facing the harsh judgment that can sometimes come with polarized perspectives. When a conversation turns to conflict instead of understanding, it’s easy to feel isolated and even alienated. And we question if we truly belong when others refuse to see our shared humanity. But what if differing views weren’t something to avoid at all costs? What if, instead they were an opportunity to grow in wisdom and compassion, a chance to find belonging by embracing the parts of ourselves that feel defensive or reactive? My guest today, Melissa Carter, has devoted over a decade of her life to exploring these ideas.
Jonathan Fields (00:01:26) – As senior director for Global Spiritual Life at New York University, Melissa guides students to sit with discomfort, to explore the feelings and the knowingness and the experiences wrapped around being in a community, being in a conversation, being interactions where people don’t always see the world the same way, let alone any given issue. In our conversation, she shares some really groundbreaking perspectives on reframing opposition as a tool for mutual understanding rather than the much more common cancellation or polarization. And she offers techniques to overcome barriers that prevent belonging both to our highest values and to each other. And she dies into coexistence, distinguishing harm from disagreement, sharing insights anyone can use to transform conflict into what she calls intelligent differences that illuminate a shared path forward. So if you have ever felt alienated or isolated or on the outside by contrasting views, this episode will really give you tools and a sense of hope. Join me in learning how to turn life’s difficulties into gateways of belonging, starting within ourselves and radiating outward. So excited to share this conversation with you.
Jonathan Fields (00:02:44) – I’m Jonathan Fields and this is a Good Life project. As we have this conversation, you hold a couple of different titles. Head of NYU’s Mindfulness and Education programming, senior director of Global Spiritual Life, Adjunct professor, really exploring the intersection between a wide variety of domains and spirituality to mindfulness, to social justice, to belonging, self care and the points of intersection of all these different things. And I want to dive into a bunch of those, but before we get there, a lot of the place that you found yourself today is really deeply informed by your own personal journey, your own personal story, the experiences that you’ve had going all the way back from the time that you were a young kid. So let’s take a jump back in time and touch into some of those earlier moments and experiences that really awakened you. Also were sources of struggle, sources of awakening and kind of led you to the path that you’re in. Take me back to sort of like the earlier experiences.
Melissa Carter (00:03:49) – Growing up, I always struggled with my own sense of belonging, I think in so many different ways within family structures, within my religion, within, you know, friend groups.
Melissa Carter (00:04:00) – My father, a Nigerian black man. My mom was a Ukrainian Jewish woman. And when they met, it was only a couple of years after interracial marriage became legal in our country, in this country, in the United States. And my mother’s family completely disagreed with her dating a black man. So they dated in secret for a year. My father was one of the first black contract negotiators for the paper workers union, and his office actually was is here in New York City. So I walk by it often, which is kind of cool. And my mom was, I believe is secretary in the office. So they dated in secret for like a year and they would write love notes back and forth to each other. On back in the day, there were these like pink forms. It said while you were out.
Jonathan Fields (00:04:51) – I remember that as well. Yeah.
Melissa Carter (00:04:53) – And they would write like little notes back and forth and I have quite a few of them. And then at one point they decided that they wanted to get married.
Melissa Carter (00:04:59) – They they loved each other. They wanted to be together. They wanted to build a life together. My mother’s family disowned my mom for marrying my dad. They sat Shiva for her. That’s the ritual of mourning in the Jewish faith. So for many years she didn’t have her parents. There was a bit of a reconciliation later on. I was already born at this point. I think I met my grandparents a few times, but there wasn’t much of a relationship. And I just remember really feeling this sense of like, why don’t we have any family around, you know, And that looks like my mom, or Why do I look different than my mother? And the age of nine, I lost my father to lung cancer and he got diagnosed. And within six months he had passed and he had converted to Judaism before I was born. And so I was raised Jewish. You know, we’d go to temple and my dad would be there. And my dad was very proud to be Jewish, very proud.
Melissa Carter (00:05:56) – It fulfilled something in him. And so, you know, we were saying prayers. We were like one of the first in the rose. And we did, you know, ritual and Shabbat dinners. And so that just seemed very normal to me. And my, you know, my father looked like me and it seemed normal. But then I started to notice that after he passed, there was no one that looked like myself or my sister when we would be at Temple. That raised a few questions, but I didn’t have the language at the time because I was so young to bring it up. My mom really struggled with his death. She was also sick. She had diabetes and she struggled with her diabetes and she really struggled with his death. And after many years of therapy and healing, I can see, you know, she lost her whole family to marry this man and then he dies. And she really didn’t get the help that she needed. And she became quite abusive with me and my sister.
Melissa Carter (00:06:55) – I think the unlearning of the way racism and whiteness showed up in her body stopped. And now she had these two black kids to take care of, and she didn’t know how to do her hair. And she didn’t understand why. You know, we look to different than her friends kids. And she really struggled with that and was really quite emotionally and physically abusive to my sister and I. She was in and out of the hospital. She was very sick. And in her last year of life, my sister and I basically stayed in her home alone while she was in the hospital and someone would come and bring us money for food for the week. But we really fended for ourselves, got ourselves ready for school and things like that. I think I was 12 and my sister was 15 and I remember my my body, my weight being a really big issue for her. And, you know, I was constantly on like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig. And again, I wasn’t even a teenager. I mean, I was.
Melissa Carter (00:07:52) – I was so young and she married a big black man. So, you know, we’re not going to be these little tiny kids that she wanted. But she had been in the hospital for quite some time and she’d come back and I had lost weight. And of course, I had lost weight. I was a little kid trying to take care of myself. I’m sure I wasn’t eating a lot. And she was very excited that I had lost all this weight. And she was so proud of the way my body looked. And that was also very confusing. And she died within a couple of weeks after that. For a moment, I felt her acceptance and her love that was quite conditional. And then it was gone. And now I had no parents. I had this family, particularly my mom’s parents, that didn’t want to interact with us because of our skin color. And then my mother’s half brother, she had a half brother who she was not close with him and his family, my Aunt Sandra, my Uncle Frank, my cousin Mac, Dara and Daniel took my sister and I in, and they know my uncle, who’s one of my favorite people in the whole world.
Melissa Carter (00:08:58) – And actually my son is named after, knows me better than he knew his own sister, you know. So I was at this time 13, my sister was 16, 17. And we moved to Florida from New Jersey and lived with them. And again, like here I was a little different, right? Like I was black, I was Jewish. I was from the from New Jersey. This is Miami. This is very different. I lost my parents. I had come from an abusive home. So just growing up, I always felt that lack of belonging and that yearning to look other ways than I did to gain acceptance, to gain belonging, to gain love. Because that’s what I was trained by my mom to do. So in college, I really struggled with that sense of belonging and that being who I am innately wanting to be something I wasn’t. So I did all sorts of things. I had multiple groups of friends, right? Like, you know, there was part of me that was the sorority girl and I had joined a sorority.
Melissa Carter (00:09:54) – And then there was another part of me that dated, you know, drug dealers and, you know, just really, you know, not what I should have been doing and kept entering into these romantic relationships that were abusive and then and friend groups that weren’t really true friends. But then I’d go into like my sorority sisters, and it was and I was, you know, vice president of this and secretary of that and, you know, on this board. And so, like, I lived all these, like double lives where in one area, I think the part of me that was so hurt and yearning for love was making very poor decisions. And I think there’s this innate part of me that just knew who I was in my core, who was making really smart decisions and decisions that were carving these new paths. And I don’t think I would have known then that this part of me was doing that. But then after college, I was in New York for spring break or something like that. And, you know, I was a lively kid and I was at a club and I loved music.
Melissa Carter (00:10:56) – I just loved music so much. It was just everything to me. And I would even in college, I would throw parties on the golf course because why not? I was in college. I think I even like, Oh yeah, I had my radio station. I was on the radio station just, you know, again, like very creative, like a found ways to be successful and then also making really poor choices that were, I think, furthering the narrative of you don’t belong, you’re not loved, you’re less than deficit, deficit, deficit. And I don’t know, even if the parts of me that were being successful, we’re doing great in school and we’re sociable and in these clubs and this, that and the other would have known that that was because of the strength of who I am was leading that. I don’t know if I would have been able to attribute it to that then. So here I am in New York and spring break. I meet a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy, and he’s like, Oh, I’m in the music industry.
Melissa Carter (00:11:50) – And I, you know, I’m looking for a publicist. And at that moment, I was really struggling back home in Florida of I needed to make a change or I was going to keep the cycle going of going back to this, you know, these bad relationships and not living my potential or what I could build or live for my life that I don’t think I could have seen at that point. And so something inside me was like, I’m a publicist, and the guy was like, Oh yeah, I’ve been doing publicity all college, you know? And I think like a month later, two of my sorority sisters, we packed up a rented van and we moved me to New York and I Googled how to be a publicist on the way and figured it out. And I quickly got fired from that job as soon as I got here, because obviously I wasn’t a publicist, but I picked up a promoting at clubs gig and I picked up a side job here and a side job there. And then all of a sudden I got a job at the Virgin Megastore and Union Square back when that was still around.
Melissa Carter (00:12:50) – And. He became a floor manager randomly. Another friend who knew that I loved music, who he had moved here from Florida. He had worked at Def Jam at the time, overheard that Chris Lady’s office, that Violator management, who managed Mobb Deep and Tribe Called Quest and Mr. Alien 50 Cent. They needed a new intern, a second assistant for his assistant. I called them up and said, Hey, I heard you need an assistant. I’m an assistant. Okay. So came in for the interview, got the job, and that kind of was how my the tenacity within me would always just kind of show up at the right moment. And I think then I would have said that was like my grit. And it was, you know, or my just like ability to see an opportunity and take it. But I actually believe it was part of my faith walk and it was part of my spiritual journey. And so I switched to that to say I’m like a cat. I’ve had multiple careers, but each one has led me to a deeper understanding of who I am and what I think I’m supposed to contribute to humanity.
Melissa Carter (00:13:54) – It’s allowed me to find my own belonging. It’s allowed me to unlearn the narratives I was taught as a child that were taught to me from my mother or from society or from just what our culture says. And I think finally, like my innate truth and then really start building and living a life from there. And so that’s really the set up of how coming from this really broken home and I think about I have no anger, animosity towards my mom. I think that she was actually quite courageous and took was taking steps to do her unlearning walk of unlearning the ways in which racism and hate and supremacy showed up at her. I think it was very courageous of her to say like, okay, I’m going to walk away from my whole family and marry the man I love and give birth to two children. And I think it’s unfortunate that she didn’t get to finish that unlearning. So I feel very much like I’m doing part of that for her. And so I feel like there’s a lot of generational healing in my family that’s happening.
Jonathan Fields (00:14:55) – Yeah, it’s so interesting. Yeah, there’s so many threads in there. Like one of them that just really stood out to me is that it’s almost like you’re living these two lives that are tracking side by side. And one is this there’s some there’s a voice inside of you that says, like, I know me and I have strength and I can handle what comes my way. And the other voice is the voice of pain. It’s the voice of wounding. It’s the voice of suffering and just yearning to be seen and to be accepted and to belong as you are. And it’s like they’re doing this dance, weaving between each other, trying to figure out who takes the lead at any given time and what’s constructive and what’s deconstructive in that dance. You know, and when you’re a kid, I think when we look back at moments like this or seasons of our life, we can see that. But when you’re in it, you’re just opening your eyes in the morning, you’re just living, you know, it’s just like I’m just really doing the thing every day.
Jonathan Fields (00:15:45) – And like, you go from one thing to the next to the next. But for you, it’s sort of interesting that music also becomes this really interesting, almost like third anchor for you. And at the same time, music, especially like the hip hop culture around then, was also really controversial culture. Like whether it comes down to the lyrics, the people that were in it, and there’s been a lot of conversation like over the probably the recent five years or so. It was recently actually listening to somebody who wrote a recent second biography about Biggie Smalls and like, he’s such a titan in that space, such an incredible, innovative, creative like like that space wouldn’t be the same without his existence. And yet if you look back at the lyrics and some of his personal relationships, like the harm and the misogyny and the homophobia is clear, and I bring it up because there was a comment that was offered because people say his life was cut down very young 25 years later, you know, like people are saying, well, like you’d like to think that how do you continue the journey and been an open person and been in conversation and followed culture.
Jonathan Fields (00:16:53) – Would his thought process have changed? Would he have grown differently? Would he have like become much more open and understanding and accepting? It sounds like there’s a really similar like wondering about your mom. You know, it’s like she had sacrificed so much and she had been on this journey of unlearning, as you described. And then there was this profoundly traumatic incident that shifts things in a negative way and knocks her off that journey. But had she been around, would she have come back on that journey and like deepened into it?
Melissa Carter (00:17:22) – You know, I think about that a lot, actually. And I really actually have deep, deep, deep compassion for her because I don’t know much about her childhood and I don’t know what was doctrine indoctrinated into her. You know, I don’t know what was told to her. I don’t know what her belonging felt like. You know, I don’t know what she went through that brought her to the experience of this is how I have to treat another human being. And a lot of my work is asking those questions and having the ability to say to someone in front of.
Melissa Carter (00:17:52) – Can you tell me how you got there? Right. How did you get to that opinion? How did you get to that belief? How did you get to that perspective of what you believe about me? How did you get there? And I feel very strongly that I have to live a very honest and authentic life and in in memory of her right. Like again, like she didn’t get that opportunity to continue her unlearning. And I, I feel like it’s a tragedy that she didn’t get to know me for me. You know, I think it’s a tragedy that, like, she didn’t get to know my sister for my sister, who is quite amazing and we’re her kids. We did good. We’re doing good in the world. I appreciate your you’re bringing up this dance of the pain. And I also don’t want to just say strength, but I would say this like deep love that I had for life and this deep curiosity that I had and this deep wonderment that I had. I think the child within me was so curious.
Melissa Carter (00:18:49) – She was so full of wonder and and filled with so much possibility. And I never lost that. And I think that’s really beautiful. And this pain overshadowed it sometimes. But I think once I got them into relationship, once I got them talking, I got them dancing. I could wonder about my pain, where I could sit with it and say, like, what is this pain? Is this even mine? Right? What is this narrative? What is this saying about me? Is it even true? And you know, as I continued to get older and have more experiences and honestly, therapy is a wonderful thing, um, really allow myself to peel away the narratives that were not mine so I could hear and see and remember the innate truth in me. And that’s one of my spirituality came. I was in my late 20s, early 30s, and started meditating. I had, you know, dabbled in the Jewish faith here and there, but always really struggled. Every time I went into Jewish community, think I was again, that pain just didn’t allow me to see the community in front of me or see that I could belong.
Melissa Carter (00:19:58) – And then any slight action of bias or questioning of my Judaism or Jewishness, or why am I there, I think just reinforced the pain and I just couldn’t touch it. So I stayed away. So I became a spiritual person and I still never lost my commitment or my feeling that, you know, something divine was always around me and guiding me and with me. And I think the slowly sitting with the pain and peeling away the narratives allowed me to feel and see and hear more of that unseen divinity spirit. And give or however you you call God, right? And so slowly I got to hear that. And that was able to hear my my innate truth, my own voice, my own belonging. And I think the pain stopped leading the dance and became more of my teacher of how can I use this so I don’t have to keep living it. And then once I, I think moved through that and grew up and obviously became more emotionally mature and secure, I think now my work is really centered in like I want to help others make sure that they have the tools to find their own belonging.
Melissa Carter (00:21:16) – And whatever that is, is that in religion? Is that in their well-being? Is that in their creative expression? Is that, you know, and them just living an authentic life? You know, I think each of us has a unique gift or talent that this world definitely needs if we’re ever going to move forward towards a more liberated world of love, equality and equity. And each of us, I think, contribute to that. But we have to be empowered to offer it, and I want to be part of that. And I think I, I needed to move through a lot of pain to be able to even feel that I could contribute to it. And now that I do feel like I can contribute to it, I don’t feel like, Oh, I just can. I feel like it’s part of my human obligation.
Jonathan Fields (00:22:02) – Which is also so different. I feel like so, so often, so many of us feel this compulsion to contribute, to help others to heal because it’s part of our own healing journey, because we are still deeply in the wound and we feel like if we can help others heal theirs, it’ll make us feel better.
Jonathan Fields (00:22:21) – And also to a certain extent, I think sometimes that becomes a distraction. It lets us feel like we’re doing the work because we’re helping somebody else do the work. But also it’s distracting us from actually doing the work on ourselves, correct?
Melissa Carter (00:22:35) – And I think there’s a lot of ego in that. And I remember when I was first getting into relationship with my own spirituality, I was very excited. It was very different and very freeing. And, you know, I was offering guided meditations and mindfulness and we. Women’s circles, and I did Reiki and I could do intuitive readings, all these things. And I remember when I first started, there was a bit of me that like, I think, like you said, I use that to, Oh, I can go and heal others, I can go and help others heal. And and it further kept me away from my own stuff, right? And because of that, that’s not being of service, right? Like I wasn’t being of service. I wasn’t truly helping.
Melissa Carter (00:23:19) – And I think once I kind of got into understanding that that was what I was doing, I was just distracting myself from my own stuff. I realized that that’s not the way I was supposed to be, offering my gifts and talents. And when I first started in mindfulness, it was very important that I got trauma informed, trained because I felt that I when I obviously didn’t want like my own trauma to enter the room, but I was noticing I struggled with it or a bit, right? I struggled to separate myself from my trauma, to be able to be in a room and hear other people’s trauma and hold spaces where it wasn’t overwhelming me and consuming me. I’m a very, very sensitive person. And someone said to me, and I don’t know who said, this is probably in a book somewhere and I’m sorry that I’m not citing it. So I did not make this up. Someone much wiser than me did. And they said, lead from the scar and not the wound. And I’ve really been guiding my anytime I try to be of service or to hold space or to offer guidance or to help someone move through a difficult time.
Melissa Carter (00:24:27) – I always try to lead with myself first. It’s just who I am and it’s who I’m always going to be. But I now have this deep commitment to lead from the scar and not the wound. And if I’m not ready to be able to stay grounded and in my own body when I share of myself externally, then it’s not the time for me to share from there. And that was something I had to learn as my career went on. And I think that that’s okay. And I see like a lot of young or even not so young influencers and leaders out there leading from their scars. I’m leading from their wounds. I really wish people would just take a beat and realize that you don’t have to, that you’re actually you need to ask yourself, Am I really being of service right now or am I trying to have my own wound tended to? And I think when we’re not having our own wounds tended to when we’re being of service, that is service.
Jonathan Fields (00:25:26) – And it’s not that there’s any mal intent in this phenomenon.
Jonathan Fields (00:25:30) – Often people are like, I really, really want to help. I really want to serve. Like I see people suffering all around me. I’m suffering. Two Maybe there’s just some role that I can play in alleviating that, and that’s not a bad thing. That’s like a beautiful impulse, right? Well, I think.
Melissa Carter (00:25:44) – We’ve also been taught that I’m so sorry. I think we’ve been taught that. I think we’ve been taught to engage in that way of relating. Right. Like you tell me something and I’m like, Oh, me too. I relate to that. And let me tell you my own pain story around that.
Jonathan Fields (00:25:56) – Yeah, it’s the commiseration effect, right?
Melissa Carter (00:25:58) – Yeah. And we’re not taught that actually your presence and your witnessing is enough, right? So when I am talking with students at NYU and we’re going through active listening or resonating exercises, I’m like, what if you didn’t say your me two story back? What if you just said, you know, I don’t mean me to mean to the movement.
Melissa Carter (00:26:21) – I mean like me too. And I’m going to share a difficulty. Oh, let me show you a difficulty in so you know that I understand that we can relate. What if you just shared back what you heard the person say, Hey, so what I’m hearing you say is the following and did I get that right? And I understanding you right and literally just your witnessing presence be enough. And so we’ll have the students come and do this exercise and they get blown away by it because they’re like, wow, I feel really seen and heard. And then the person listening is like, I didn’t really I feel less pressure to have to relate to them in a way that maybe I’m not comfortable relating yet, right? So I think it just it’s a way of engagement that we’ve been taught and there’s other ways to engage.
Jonathan Fields (00:27:08) – I’m sort of followed loosely the Arthur Aarons work on sort of like cultivating intimacy and part of his it sort of became popularized a chunk of years back when Mandy Lim had his column in The New York Times and the Modern Romance piece, where it was about like, these are the 36 questions that cultivate instant intimacy and instant friendship.
Jonathan Fields (00:27:28) – And he ran some really fascinating research in his lab in Stony Brook, where he brought students who were complete strangers into the lab, had them move through these like three cycles of 36 questions. And the idea underneath it was mutual progressive vulnerability and revelation, where each person would answer the question and then they go to the next one. It started really surface level, like super easy, like you’re not really helping, it’s not uncomfortable. And with each question you revealing a little bit more in getting a little bit more vulnerable. And he found that after 45 minutes, people would report that they felt closer to this person who had been a stranger. Then they did to friends that they had known for years. But it kind of speaks to like part of what you’re talking about, whereas it’s so human nature for us to feel like the only pathway to deepening intimacy and friendship is by this reciprocal storytelling and say like, Oh yeah, me too. This is what happened to me. And that’s one way to do it.
Jonathan Fields (00:28:28) – And sometimes it’s completely appropriate and a great way to engage. But what you’re offering is this alternative path that I think a lot of us don’t realize is available to us that is can be so powerful and beautiful and helping people feel seen and helping people connect with each other.
Melissa Carter (00:28:44) – Absolutely. Know Adrienne Maree Brown. She’s the author of Pleasure Activism Emergent Strategy. I’ve been to quite a few of her trainings. She’s a phenomenal I mean, she’s just like an Earth angel. I mean, she’s just phenomenal. But she has one of her principles is what I’m hearing you talk about is moving at the speed of trust. And I love that so much. And I try to allow that to help me when I’m entering in any type of relationship, romantic work, familial, anything. Right. Is can we move at the speed of trust and really feel that trust? And I think there’s such a grounded connective tissue in that. And that’s what I’m hearing you say. To write like, wow, like I can just sit and feel heard and seen.
Melissa Carter (00:29:32) – That creates trust. And I don’t know how many students come to my office just to talk because, you know, they want to just be heard and seen.
Jonathan Fields (00:29:41) – Yeah. I feel like in today’s culture, that is such a gift because it’s so rare. And I feel like whether it’s your personal history, whether it’s what’s going on in your immediate or larger cultural experience, whether it’s social media and the impact of what we see in like the shiny, happy story side of it. You know, it’s just so many people are walking around feeling like, you know, all the data shows that there’s an epidemic of loneliness. We’re more connected than ever before. And yet loneliness is at like record high rates. People just don’t feel the real them is actually surfaced and seen on a regular basis.
Melissa Carter (00:30:17) – And I think there’s an urgency and a fighting for the space to be seen.
Jonathan Fields (00:30:20) – Yeah, take me more about that.
Melissa Carter (00:30:22) – You know, I think about social media of like, how many followers can I get and what can I can I share the story? And, you know, how much can I reveal of myself and how much am I willing to allow you to see to get more followers and this, that and the other? And I find it sometimes to be people really fighting for this space to be seen because we’re just not stopping and witnessing and being present with one another and moving a little bit slower and that speed of trust.
Melissa Carter (00:30:48) – Does that make sense?
Jonathan Fields (00:30:49) – Yeah, no, it definitely does. And I feel like we’re feeling that. We’re feeling the pain of it, but we don’t necessarily understand where the pain is coming from.
Melissa Carter (00:30:57) – Right. And I don’t think it’s anyone’s, you know, I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault, but I think it’s what you’re saying. I think it’s the this access over access, this urgency for instant gratification of that being seen, being quite distracted with all the technology and over information that we have. And I think there’s like an inability of this, like sometimes you just need to see yourself and that be enough.
Jonathan Fields (00:31:23) – And sometimes I think that’s a bit of a scary proposition for a lot of people.
Melissa Carter (00:31:27) – Absolutely terrifying. Yeah.
Jonathan Fields (00:31:29) – It’s like to lay yourself bare in your own eyes is not always an easy thing to do.
Melissa Carter (00:31:34) – Yeah, I mean, look, my whole story is about that, right? Like, my whole story is about avoiding myself and avoiding really having to like. And I don’t know if I’ve ever even said this, but really having to affirm that what society says about me, what my mother was saying about me, wasn’t true.
Melissa Carter (00:31:54) – And to stand in my truth with no validation other than myself. And that is hard.
Jonathan Fields (00:32:01) – When students come to you. Like as we shared in the beginning of a conversation, You’ve been at NYU for a number of years now. Really exploring the intersection of mindfulness and social justice and spirituality and and belonging and all these really important things when students come to you like so you have this sort of like you have a role at this major university in New York City where you have an interesting access point to students and to the experiences that they’re having in whether it’s academic pressure, social pressure, cultural pressure, when they come to you with questions like what we’re talking about and they’re struggling, they’re struggling with a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, a sense of almost every 19, 20, 21 year old, no matter what your background is, is struggling with that stuff. I think most adults are right. Yeah. So when they come to you, you have an interesting toolbox to draw upon when somebody shows up with you.
Jonathan Fields (00:32:54) – I’m curious what you look to to help people in those moments.
Melissa Carter (00:33:01) – What’s so amazing about this cohort of students and young adults that I get to work with and I have the privilege to work with. So really, I mean, it’s just it’s amazing and so inspiring is they are in this moment of development of human development, self authorship, where they’re really determining how they want to self author the next big moment of their lives and what’s really for them and might be challenging some of the things that they grew up hearing and understanding and the rules and obligations and rituals in which that they lived. They might be challenging that a bit or they might not be right. You know, and I think the first thing that’s important is that they stay in their own bodies, right? Like, do they have a connection to their own body? And I think mindfulness, self regulation, embodiment exercises, contemplation, practices to put you in your own body in a world that’s constantly giving you all this fuel and fire to get out of it, put you in your own body so you’re in your own experience and your own subjective experience and really inquire and examine what brought you to this moment.
Melissa Carter (00:34:14) – And so I think it’s an inviting in that self regulation that embodied practice and inviting a sense of curiosity that’s playful to students, inviting them to challenge and question all in a way that allows them to make deeper understanding and meaning of the things they’re learning, of the things they’re trying out in their different identities and roles and ways of being. And I would say another tool would be community. I think it’s really important to even if it’s just one other person, finding a way to connect, putting someone in a community where they can practice being who they are. And I and I talk about that a lot with my students is this might feel tough. It may feel tough, like we just said, to bear witness to yourself or to be authentic or to be vulnerable or to be the one with a counterculture thought or to, you know, try something new. But can we just practice it? And this idea of practice, meaning that you don’t have to get it right or wrong, you’re just practicing or trying it out and you’ll learn from that practice and then you’ll take that information and choose to figure out how you want to practice next.
Melissa Carter (00:35:33) – And I think it’s really important to always keep that sense of wonderment and child learning to stay curious, to learn. What did you learn? Assess it, apply that information to make the next step that feels most aligned with who you are, what you’re going to feel in your body. And so if you’re not connected to your body, which has so much information for you, I think it’s difficult to self author in a way that is aligned and authentic and true to your name being.
Jonathan Fields (00:36:07) – You know, in an earlier conversation that we had, you posited a question that I wrote down because I just it was really simple and short, but I wanted to sit with it. And actually, like the nature of the question is how do you sit with what is? And it seems like such a simple question, but it is not. There is so much in there and it is so powerful. And it’s probably the type of question where you keep revisiting that for years.
Melissa Carter (00:36:37) – I mean, I think you can revisit that multiple times a day.
Melissa Carter (00:36:39) – Yeah, right. Like I think you should always be revisiting it and I appreciate that that question stayed with you. And sometimes it is the simplest question. That’s the most complex answer. We talked about this, but Angel Kyodo Williams, the Buddhist priest and speaker, teacher, influencer. I mean, is it all as it all.
Jonathan Fields (00:37:00) – And just all around awesome human being?
Melissa Carter (00:37:02) – Incredible. I learned a lot from her. And one of the things I think I learned in her trainings and moving through her programs and just any time she talks is she unapologetically sits with what is when you can sit with what is. I think you can then make choices for yourself that are aligned and authentic. So, for example, if we take my own childhood story, until I could sit with the pain of what this society says about me being a black woman or what the pain and the rejection that I received from my mom or and just the deep wound that I was I had. I couldn’t see how it wasn’t true and I couldn’t see the brilliance of me and I couldn’t see how I was wanted and needed by this world.
Melissa Carter (00:37:55) – I was living out the deficit that this world was telling me I was until I could sit with that as well. That’s what it is. That the world says that about me, right? Or that’s what happened. I couldn’t see another way. And that’s why I encourage my students or invite them to have tools of embodied practice mindfulness, self regulation, inquiry to sit with what is even in discomfort is be comfortable being uncomfortable because the second you can sit with what is, you have your own type of belonging that you can move from and that’s really powerful to build a life from there.
Jonathan Fields (00:38:34) – One of the things that I think can distract us from that sometimes, you know, and we can talk about this in a in a college setting, but this is also just day to day, everyday life for so many people these days in a world that is highly polarized these days, especially on campus, I imagine this shows up a lot, is handling opposing points of view, you know, and often we question ourselves.
Jonathan Fields (00:38:57) – But increasingly there’s, I think, an impulse to label the experience of somebody having an opposing point of view, just seeing the world differently than you as them causing you harm, psychological harm, physical harm. And sometimes that’s true and sometimes there is mal intent behind it and sometimes there’s legitimate harm. From your perspective, I’m so curious because like, you’re in this petri dish of college students and part of the college experience is you’re intentionally like stepping into a world where you’re going to be presented with human beings with opposing points of view, professors with opposing point of view, teaching with opposing points of view. Tell me more about because I imagine you have a lot of conversations with students about this in the setting that you’re in. What are they experiencing in this moment in time around this, and what are your thoughts around like how to navigate this experience?
Melissa Carter (00:39:53) – So I actually think that going into a petri dish, as you said, of diverse thought, is a gift. And I try to lead from a place of what can we celebrate and learn from this diverse thought rather than look at it as a deficit, which is what our world does, right? It looks at it diverse thought or looking at the world differently as some type of like we have to fight for dominance in that and who’s right and who’s wrong and live in that binary.
Melissa Carter (00:40:24) – I actually think it’s an asset and we should be celebrating our differences and we don’t always have to find the common ground and like, Oh, we have this in common, so now we can get along. Well, actually, what if we don’t have anything in common? We don’t even have to get along. But we do have to coexist. So this practice of coexistence, I think is really important. I teach a co-teach, a course called conflict, religion, conflict, transformation and the American democracy. And we talk a lot about in this class is how do we coexist with people that we vehemently disagree with? You can vehemently disagree with someone and have a conversation, have a dialogue with someone, but I can try and understand where your. Coming from. Right? Just to understand, not to change my opinion, not change my point of view, but just understand, like I said earlier, how did you get there? How did you get to that belief? Now, that’s different than harm.
Melissa Carter (00:41:20) – And I think we have conflated diverse thought with harm. And because of that, we’re not seeing each other’s humanities. And because of that, we are staying away from each other and getting more and more and more and more siloed rather than coming at different from a place of celebration and asset. What capital do you bring? Does your difference bring to this room that actually could influence and help move us forward and complement mine or not complement mine? Simply learn and we go into this deficit model of canceling each other out and not trying to hear each other or understand It’s quite dangerous. And I mean, we’re seeing it be played out right now in our very, very vital world. But I think it’s important to celebrate our differences. But I think it’s really important to be able to distinguish between what is harm and what is not. And that’s something that we we talk a lot about on campus is you are coming into this petri gist of difference, not doesn’t mean that you’re coming into a petri dish of harm.
Melissa Carter (00:42:27) – You have a lot to learn here. And if harm occurs, we approach that differently.
Jonathan Fields (00:42:31) – And it’s got to be an interesting because there’s a line that sometimes is like really gray. Yeah. And very individualized to the people, to the experience. And yet, like your point about not canceling the human being even if you rejected the idea, and I think that’s one in my experience, I’m so curious. Like, it sounds like we’re on the same page here. One of the things that just scares me so much about the current climate, whether it’s in a university or just in the current conversation in culture, is that when we see somebody offer a strongly opposing point of view, we don’t engage to try and learn, like you said, like what’s informing that? Like, tell me more about like, where did you come from? Even if on the surface we completely disagree like it, wouldn’t it be interesting to actually learn what’s informing that? Right? And that’s valuable to us as we move forward.
Jonathan Fields (00:43:21) – Individual even if there’s no resolution at all. Okay. So now I understand people who are different than me with opposing points of view a little bit better, but we don’t even go there. And often we just say if that person doesn’t see the world the same as me, they are no longer worthy of human existence, like their humanity is no longer like worthy of dignity and respect, and they’re just not there for me anymore. We canceled the person and there’s no path to redemption from that cancellation either. And that is like terrifying to me.
Melissa Carter (00:43:51) – It is terrifying. But I think also part of what’s contributing to that is that what I was talking about earlier is that urgency to be seen and to be cared for, right? Like I worry that for some people it is urgent. It is urgent that you agree with them and that you sometimes we’re talking about people’s human rights and how are we negotiating that? How do we have a different opinion on if someone deserves equity and equality in this world? Right.
Melissa Carter (00:44:18) – That’s really difficult. And I think there needs to be room for each other’s humanity and we need to model that for one another and give each other permission. But it scares me too, because I understand the urgency. And I also see the deep, deep, deep need for that healing and for that ability to be with one another, be with what is. And we have such an inability, which is quite scary.
Jonathan Fields (00:44:47) – And the whole notion of not just being but enquiring into what is right is a skill set. I love the fact that, like, you literally have created a role at a major university that allows you to invite students to explore that skill set. Because I think a lot of grownups, we don’t have it. Like we never had an experience where we were taught this. We were taught the skills of like sitting with what is inquiring into what is in ourselves and in others and looking underneath the surface of what’s actually happening. Like, what’s the subtext here? Not just the context. And even if we never have a resolution, at least we’re better informed.
Jonathan Fields (00:45:23) – And I think that makes for a better circumstance for for all of us.
Melissa Carter (00:45:27) – I do have to give credit, since you sort of created the role, I do have to give credit to my predecessor, Elsie, who started the program alongside Iman Khalid Latif and Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, who also have a huge contributors to the NYU community. And they created this alongside our current president, now President Linda Mills. And I know one of the priorities for our upcoming year, again, is keep giving tools for people to be with each other, to inquire with one another, hold ourselves accountable to that, and to coexist because we’re going to coexist in this world and we’re not always going to agree. And we need to know that you can disagree. But we shouldn’t have to get to a place of disagreement where we’re starting to harm each other.
Jonathan Fields (00:46:12) – One of the things that we and you kind of reference it in passing, but I want to loop back to it is the notion of belonging and its role in us living in modern day life and so much of what we strive for, so much of what underneath our yearning is without us realizing it is to belong, not to fit in, not to feel like we’ve molded ourselves so that we can walk into a room and everybody is like, Hey, you’re here without really actually knowing like the real us that’s underneath a facade, but like genuinely feeling that sense of belonging.
Jonathan Fields (00:46:44) – I think that’s a lot of what we’re talking about here. Is this, like, deep and profound yearning to belong even daresay.
Melissa Carter (00:46:49) – I think it’s all we’re talking about, right? And when it makes me think about is so I have a I have a seven month old baby boy sage. And I mean, he’s just the love of my life. And I was holding him the other day. I was getting them ready for bed and I was holding him and I was going kind of going through my day. It was a little not as present as I should have been. I had had a rough day. I had had a quite intense disagreement with a colleague, and I was inquiring going through the conversation in my in my mind. And I was trying to hold myself accountable to my part and how I contributed to it. And there was a part in it that I was like, I could have done this part better. I’m looking at my son while I’m thinking about this, and I was like, Oh, it’s no longer about me doing better for me.
Melissa Carter (00:47:40) – I have to do better to show him right? And like be in integrity with him for him. And like, I’m teaching him now how to approach these situations. And it was just a very surreal moment of I softened. I immediately was ready to like call the colleague up and take ownership of my contribution with no ego and with no, like a shame. Just like I did this poorly. I apologize. This is how I’m going to commit to doing it differently moving forward. I asked for your feedback and how that works, and it was literally just like looking at my son and being like, Oh, I have to teach him how to do this. Some of my teaching is not going to come from my words. It’s going to come from him just watching me. And I’m saying all this in relationship to belonging because I felt I belonged to something so much bigger than myself in that moment. And I wanted to be the best person I could be because of it. And to me, that was love, right? I simply was experiencing love.
Melissa Carter (00:48:49) – And because of that experience of love and that privilege, I have to experience it. I wanted to be a person of integrity, of authenticity, of honesty, of truth, and is a bit deep. But that sense of belonging is simply a way that we can love one another in the most radical sense, not in a unicorns and snow cone sense.
Jonathan Fields (00:49:15) – Yeah, no, completely makes sense. And I’m right there with you and it feels like a good place for us to come full circle in our conversation as well. So in this container, a Good Life project, if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?
Melissa Carter (00:49:30) – I think living a life of curiosity and trying to live as truthfully and honestly as possible that’s grounded in love of service to others and where you strive every day to see the humanity not only in yourself, but in others, give the permission and grace to do so. Thank you. Thank you.
Jonathan Fields (00:49:51) – Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode, tape it.
Jonathan Fields (00:49:53) – You’ll also love the conversation that we have with Jonathan Hite on happiness, morality and hard conversations. You’ll find a link to Jonathan’s episode in the show notes. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven second favor, and share it maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person. Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action. That’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields, signing off for Good Life Project.