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Lean on Each Other

"The light of love is always with us, no matter how cold the flame. It is always present, waiting for the spark to ignite, waiting for the heart to awaken...”

bell hooks

A few years back, a translator from France asked me what “lean in” meant. I knew she was asking for a deeper meaning so she could translate it correctly into French, but I couldn’t give her an immediate answer. I started by asking folks on social media and I also did a bit of digging. Both yielded some less than inspiring findings, evoking me to make it a mission to let people know why using the overly popular saying “lean in” was maybe not what we would want to stoke in ourselves and in our communities.

The first thing I discovered was that it's a boxing term. Kind of cool, I suppose, if you like boxing! Yet, I kept thinking it means to be ok with being punched…  Boxing terms aside, I soon uncovered the real reason I am not a fan of the phrase. Lean in really took off after the quasi feminist book, Lean In came out in 2013. The book is your typical individualistic corporate feminist book, and its core mission was guiding (cis)women to be their best in the boardroom, to become leaders of capital (aka win at capitalism).

At this point you’re probably thinking: sure, but words and phrases change meaning over time and meaning is based on how we use it. And you’re not wrong. If you look up “lean in'' today you would see that it’s used by almost everyone, including radicals. I personally see it being used mostly by astrologers and the self-help guru types — who are indeed shifting the meaning to be about not shying away from anything that is a bit challenging or causes discomfort. Whether I am doing yoga or watching a talk on abolition, someone almost always says, “you got to lean in to this moment (or position)!”  

But for me, I can’t unsee the origins, I can’t unknow those meanings, it will always mean getting punched after all. This isn’t about judgement. In fact it's hard not to say it. Who doesn’t say it these days? I find it slips out of my mouth with ease when I am in an awkward conversation. In 2023, whether you’re dealing with a tough breakup or pushing beyond your comfort zones, it has become the go-to phrase, and it’s darn near impossible not to say for most of us! I'd go so far to say it’s become reflexive for almost everyone at some point to say: “I’m gonna lean in to this!”

One of my little hacks to un-condition the use of the phrase “lean in”, is when I hear it or come across it in an article or book, I switch it out to say "embrace” instead. The other practice I’ve started to use as I continue to refrain from telling myself, or anyone else, to just lean in when facing a hard moment is: 

“If you need some support you can lean on me.”  

I don’t want to overstate the use of “lean in” or inevitably give it too much credence but it’s almost emblematic of the current societal norms we are up against. We are amidst a loneliness endemic. I am not going to go deep into this here but I am sure you all see it, feel it, even experience it at times.  And, with loneliness increasing, I can’t think of a better time for us to offer our shoulders for folks to lean on, rather than saying, “friend, lean in to that feeling!” 

I suppose what I am trying to convey is, whatever we are individually or collectively going through, I want to root my actions in more care and commit to deepening support, solidarity, and love. I don’t know about you, but I definitely don't need to get punched when I’m struggling; I don’t need to feel more insecure, or get into a scrimaging match with the growth edges I am facing. What I do need is someone to talk to, a friend, and hopefully a shoulder to lean on

Maybe that’s why there are so many great songs singing about leaning on each other and not many about leaning in! (if there are now songs like that, well damn!).

“Lean in” is so wrapped up in the individualistic self-help world and the competitive business world alike, and so I say, let’s stop holding up an already individualistic-bootstrapping-I can do anything- ethos and instead let’s commit more to stoke the praxis of mutual aid! Let’s continue to grow relationships, ones where we are mutually taking care of each other through embracing the myriad of issues together. Especially when we are facing hard times or tough conditions, but also as a loving way to create liberatory futures for all.

Let’s lean on each other more often, creating a zillion webs of care so that no one feels alone again!

May you always have or be a loving shoulder to lean on.




PS: Incidentally, the French translator couldn’t find a way to translate “lean in”. Speaks volumes to me. 

Recommendations: two Lean On Each Other songs! 

PPS: The lovely photo is by my kid Liam (it’s of my other kid Zach making magic hearts with fireworks, circa 2015).

this was written for my joy-letter in September 2023


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