Gross. Domestic. Love.

After my talk at the conference, a fellow speaker named Steve and I were chatting.  I had quoted Marshall Rosenberg on my slides, with the quote: “Any anger is a tragic expression of an unmet need.”

He had snapped a picture of the slide and texted it to his wife. “This is our kids,” he texted. He was saying: “It’s crazy; our kids can go from zero to freak-out in two seconds, and it’s exactly that: a need that wasn’t met.

“Right?” I said. “And we’re learning it all alongside our kids. Is it any easier for us, even as adults?” I asked. “I mean, were you taught how to be aware of your needs and express them, in your upbringing?”

Steve shook his head emphatically no. “That was not us, not in our house,” he said.  The sense of emotional literacy, a fluency in naming our own emotions, didn’t come from our families of origin in this generation, or the generation before.

I gestured at the towers of Atlanta’s skyline visible through the windows behind Steve. “None of these founders of any of these organizations would have experienced it either in their upbringings. 90 years ago, each of them would have experienced distance from their own parents, and had no tools for expressing their needs meaningfully.” Love would not have been expressed verbally — an unnecessary luxury or indulgence, a forgotten accessory. And naming their own inner realities and needs? Unlikely.

And thus, the great drama plays out. A sea of individuals, bereft of true sense of belonging, unable to express their own deeply felt needs, pushing forward to Make Their Mark On The World. Questing to prove their value and worth, fishing for affection from others through their greatness. Skyscrapers rise and companies are born, being cemented into loveless corporations, being officialized into loveless systems, all born out of a great quest to be seen.

I had used the Rosenberg quote on my slides as a way of saying: until we get conversant in naming our needs, we’ll keep using work as a way to get our needs met unconsciously.

Steve and I shared a bitter laugh at this, as we connected the dots: this was us, too.

We had both been “lured” as speakers to this conference by a flattery-wielding conference organizer, who had convinced us we were too valuable to say no. We each left our families, who needed us, to demonstrate our worth on the stage instead. Every job has trade-offs, and occasional travel is part of mine — but had I blinked long enough to ask whether I was seeking affirmation elsewhere instead of investing up-close in my own family? Five days away makes a big impact. Was this one a worthwhile investment? Had we checked in with ourselves to be sure of our own motivations and needs?

The ability to become conversant in the language of our inner lives, to name our needs, and more importantly, to access the help needed to address them is still so recently developed.  From mental health supports, to gender equality that allows parents to meaningfully support one another, to having workplaces and cultures that encourage and support some aspect of this interpersonal investment — that’s still emerging.

The expectation of “love” being foremost isn’t new to the species, but the tools for supporting each other in this quest are a little fresher to the west. It’s thrilling to think of the transformation that awaits our organizations, cities, countries, families and selves as we gain a greater awareness of this. And it’s tragic to think of how far we have to go.

When I think of my conversation in the coffee-shop and the work ahead of us in true, deep, systemic reconciliation, I am even more convinced that love must be the forefront of our motivations and focuses. The daily practice in our closest relationship. The metric we evaluate, the factor we’re accountable to. The grace we extend, the vision we hold up, the ambition we pursue. If it’s not, we’re only going to be recreating the same challenges all over again.

Standing on the train platform to take MARTA on the red line back to the airport earlier today, I thought of my friend Tony’s comment about the meaninglessness of trying to pursue happiness. And yet, some writers would elevate happiness as a worthy aim, some countries even going so far as to measure Gross Domestic Happiness alongside Gross Domestic Product.

I wondered, what about Gross Domestic Love? It made me smile as it brought to mind the kind of squirm-inducing affection between parents that makes kids say “ew.” Gross, domestic, love: a national pursuit and household project.

During the final session of the conference, a video was played of a young man from Scotland who had been through the country’s foster care system since he was an infant. He now has a goal of reforming that experience, to help “bring love to the system.”

It was one of the first times that the word “love” showed up at the conference as clearly as that, spoken by a Scottish youth with a heavy brogue, a tragic story and a huge ambition.

I’m on my way back from Atlanta now, on the plane. I’ll be tired when I get home, but Kendra will be much more so. Solo parenting for this many days, on the night-shift with a nursing child, on the early-morning shift with the same kid rising at 4:45…really, solo parenting for any amount of time — that’s expensive, exhausting work.

Here is my work: returning home, helping up-close-and-personal with the humans for whom I am most directly responsible. Bringing love and attention to the person I married, the tiny humans we’re raising together. Showing my own ramshackle real-life emotions and processing our realities together, getting conversant in the language of naming our needs while deepening the sense of love between us.

It’s empire-building. It’s as big as founding a company. As massive as launching a non-profit. As worthy as creating a hotel chain. As impressive as leading a country. Very clearly and easily stated, much more significant than speaking at a conference in Atlanta.

Part two: Designing love-based systems