Kindness: a brave act of resistance

A month ago, in the midst of a government shutdown, with a second missed pay check looming, with fights over border walls and locations for Presidential addresses escalating, with angry, blaming tweets flying, with despair climbing, I caught a glimpse of one of the ways we might retain our sanity and affirm our shared humanity. I participated in a ceremony in which a young woman became a Bat Mizvah, and it was so beautiful that I could hardly believe the world didn’t radically change for the better during the hours I spent in the synagogue.

Many traditions recognize the power of a ceremonial marking to guide families through a transition. In Judaism, a young Jew makes his Bar Mitzvah, or her Bat Mitzvah, to acknowledge the transition from childhood to adulthood. The event can be simple or lavish, but it always contains chanting in Hebrew from the Torah, family and mentors who help guide the young one by participating, offering words of affirmation, and praying, and the presence of friends to help the Bat Mitzvah celebrate her hard work and maturation.

 As I watched my young friend step to the lectern, I realized she was invited there by a fiercely-loving Rabbi, who had been working with her to prepare for this experience. Even though the young teen had to rise, chant, speak, and present herself to her community, her Rabbi and mentor stood with her, encouraging her, laughing, guiding her along. Isn’t that wonderful? She didn’t have to walk alone, and neither do we! We can both look for guidance from those who have walked the road before us and provide guidance, space, and an invitation to those who come behind. The Rabbi’s embodied solidarity—her standing with-ness—was stunning in its simplicity. What if we all became people who stand with tender others?

The pinnacle of the ceremony is when the child comes to the Torah, with reverence, and, in this case, some playfulness, to chant a portion heard all around the world from every young person becoming a Bat Mitzvah. There was beauty in the solidarity, in knowing that even on this day geared toward celebrating her, she was one of many. We interact with and document our histories in such performative ways now. Our reliance on social media, on images to demonstrate our worth, has given us importance but also left us alone. Reading a portion of Torah shared globally reminded me that it does not have to be so. We can live in our own skin while resonating and belonging to so many around us. My story is mine, but it becomes meaningful when it is contextualized with the stories of so many others.  

Early in the ceremony her grandparents, brother and parents spoke words of life over her. Her grandparents adore her and were radiant with the pride of folks standing on the sweet side of raising kids to hold on to their faith, their history, their people and their community. They spoke words of blessing, intertwining the legacy of the past with their hopes for her future. Watching, I thought we all have the chance to be people who know the past and what it offers, even as we walk into the unknown ahead. Still, how lovely to pause and hear it. To acknowledge that we don’t spring into existence out of nothing, but we join a living river of souls in stress and at ease, ascending and descending as they find their way.

 Even more poignant, I wept tears of gratitude as I watched my dear friends speak words of life over their daughter. A mom and a dad, each invested in their communities in so many ways, thoughtful and fun, passionate and, above all, present for the long haul in the lives of dear friends. They welcomed their daughter into such friendship. They let her know, with great specificity, that they see her. She got to hear her mom and dad not just celebrate how fabulous she is, but to know deep in her heart that they see all that she is learning to offer the world. They didn’t speak of some hypothetical daughter, but instead of her very self, in her unique wonder.  Watching them speak over her, and then watching her big brother come and chant part of the Torah with her, left me marveling in the beauty of telling each other the good we see, out loud, face to face. This young woman’s life will forever be grounded in the words she heard. Rather than speaking up when we notice the worst in someone, what if we find words to call out the good?

In this era of accusation and assault, this holy moment in time felt like a miracle of kindness to me. Every element offered an alternative for how we might live well with one another. We do not live in scripted times, and we can’t control how others will play their roles in our current national or personal dramas. This ancient ceremony reminded me, however, that while protest and speaking up and advocacy are necessary, they alone will not save us. We need more than resistance, and must go further than merely rejecting the bad. Watching a brave and beautiful young woman become a Bat Mitzvah offered us a beautiful alternative as we created space to affirm the good.

Consider this an invitation to name the bad, to resist hateful evil, while also speaking the good you see into the world. Evaluate your own energy and behavior. Use your voice to resist through challenge and through lifting up beauty!  In dark times, the presence of light is an act of brave resistance. As Dr. King famously argued, hate cannot defeat hate, but love can. We are transformed in the sharing of hope, not just in the resisting of evil. How much more effective might we be if we call out the good we see in others, if we name our hopes for those who come after us, if we honor the best in those who came before us? Advocate for a better world by creating it in the spaces you share with others.

all is not well: hope and despair in an age of rage

One could be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed in this particular American moment. No matter your vantage point, we live in uncertain, hateful times. To quote a local pastor, “All is not well among us.” Each of us has felt the creeping anxiety of uncertainty, or the erasing sadness of marginality, or the confusing alienation from people once trusted, or the ambiguity that comes from no longer knowing who represents what to whom. Perhaps if we contextualize our own frustrations with those of our neighbors we might find that we belong—unsure but hopeful—together.

 If you have children, school shootings, drug use and soaring rates of anxiety and self-harm can be terrifying. If your skin is brown, or you appear ambiguously ethnic to others, you might be reasonably fearful of overt acts of hate or of chronic suspicion from law enforcement. If you advocate for the sanctity of early life, recent laws passed in Virginia and New York can make you question how our society can tolerate such evil. If you love a person with a terrible medical diagnosis, the repetitive trauma of watching them struggle to live is compounded by the fear that lawmakers who “represent” you might eliminate their healthcare. If you think of yourself as a good person who is kind to others, you might feel accosted by the possibility that others might think you bigoted or racist.  If you are wealthy, trade wars and a stock market based on the feelings on investors erodes security. If you are poor, hearing about a strong economy while working full time without access to healthcare or a living wage might feel like slowly drowning. If you believe America should protect its natural resources, and has traded long-term global viability for access to fossil fuels, you are stunned that we seem to be making it worse on purpose. If you believe that black lives often don’t matter in America, hearing about elected officials who thought it was fun to reenact a racist practice from the Jim Crow days likely feels disorienting and demeaning. If you understand the way trauma works in kids, then the idea that our government can’t or won’t reunite children with their families feels like slow motion horror. If you try hard in your life to live at peace, serve others and stay out of trouble, then all the outrage, eye rolling and accusation might feel like an assault.

Nearly everyone has a good reason to feel abused, to be angry or to worry. Many of us seem to think the best path forward is to blame others, to raise hell in an effort to get others to care, or even to try reaching across lines of difference to learn from another perspective. In addition to these, I wonder if it also helps to name our grief? The laundry list above can feel like whining, or worse, like an attack. Those of us who avoid complaining, who take pride in “owning our junk”, who fancy ourselves people of action, likely have trouble sitting with the sadness, pain, anxiety and anger such concerns bring to the surface. Nevertheless, it is good to name our grief.

Our religious traditions would agree. The Jewish people know lamentations usher the lamenter before God, who is the only true source of hope. Islamic tradition makes space for memorializing the hardships and sufferings of the faithful as they seek to end corruption and live generous lives. Christianity offers both worship and lament as viable paths to recognizing the hope of the Messiah. These ancient Abrahamic traditions remind us that uttering the ways that we cause pain—and grieving over the actions of others that cause us pain—are genuine expressions of our humanity and genuine pleas from our humbled states that connect us to one another.

Accusation and guilt often feel like more satisfying alternatives, but they fail to move us toward healing. Accusation keeps our feet planted on the ground while we jab at those around us. Guilt sinks us deep into our souls, paralyzing us and preventing us from looking out or up for the hand of an ally. Naming our grief is different. It allows us to move past both accusation and guilt until we come face to face with our disappointment. It allows us to feel sad without blaming that emotion on ourselves or someone else. When we name the things we have done alongside the things done to us we eventually find our selves.  By this I mean we come to remember we are people whose hearts get broken living around other people whose hearts get broken. This affirming of our humanity, this gazing inward at our sadness instead of pointing outward at our blame, prepares us for gratitude and, finally, for meaningful action.

One of my favorite admonitions in the Bible is when Paul, from prison, reminded friends to be “watchful and thankful.” He knew that if we only watched the world around us we would despair. He knew that paying attention can be dangerous work for the soul. He also knew that if we only focused on our own gratitude we might reduce our ability to see that hurt in others. The antidote for anxiety, selfishness and despair, according to Paul, is to pay attention with gratitude.

 My sister and her husband are living through a type of hell on earth as they love their older son through terminal brain cancer. Coping skills and belief systems tend to fall apart when smashed against the anguish of watching a kid you adore suffer in relentless, soul-crushing ways. They are watchful. They see it all. And it nearly kills them. They speak their grief, naming their suffering until they run out of words. And then they find gratitude even when they don’t want to. When we pay attention, gratitude wells up, and our souls, almost in an act of defiant betrayal, are lifted. Watching and thanking, we find a way to make it through the hour.

As I learn from them, and others I know who have every right to be angry and to despair, I find myself following in their wake. Pay attention to all of it. All is not well. Watch anyway. Name your grief and lament your way into hope before a God who can hold it. And then allow your soul to be lightened by gratitude. Thankfulness lifts us out of ourselves so that we see those around us. We find empathy and connectedness when we notice the many ways we hope in the midst of overwhelming pain. Then, and only then, are we able to take action, to challenge the forces that cause our pain, to speak against systems of unjust power, until we are heard. If we want to find light in the dark, we need to see and name the dark, reach out to hold other reaching hands, and give thanks that we are not alone after all.

Northam, Flake and distracting ourselves with civility

A few weeks ago former Senator Jeff Flake, NPR producer/reporter Zoe Chase, and historian Jon Meacham spoke at Vanderbilt University. It was a packed house, and the conversation was well informed, if stilted at times. Flake, now known for his call to elevate our discourse in political arenas, has consistently lamented the lack of civility in the public sphere. He is seen by some as a brave maverick who stood up to forces in his party accustomed to demonizing voices of dissent, and he had to leave politics as a result.

For the past month I have explored the divide between who we hope to be and who we sometimes become. It has often been uncomfortable, as it’s hard to see our hypocrisies, to notice our lies and to trace the impact of our delusions on our selves and others. Such periods of reflection are necessary for people who believe everything matters, and yet, I am reminded of the words my mother often sends me when she reads my work: “Remember to notice the good! Don’t just highlight the bad, but celebrate the good.”

We have never more passionately celebrated calls for respectful disagreement and civil discussion. Hooray! Senator Flake issued such rhetorical admonitions, chastising those who demonized others. In teaching a course on composition and rhetoric this semester I have been delighted to remember that rhetoric is the study of how new information interacts with old information. How do we allow new ideas to impact the perspectives we already hold on an issue? A look at various media, the Senate floor, or a church hallway might reveal we are quite bad at reaching across lines of difference, at receiving the experience of another that seems to threaten the stability of an idea we espouse.

A scholar named Jim Corder argues that we are generally terrible at having our ideas challenged because we haven’t been honest about how we developed them in the first place. In other words, the narratives we tell ourselves about how the world works are deeply entwined in our own sense of self, and our positions are therefore not mere intellectual thought experiments, but rather reflections of us. We argue fiercely, easily feeling defensive or attacked, because we embody—we have become—what we believe. When a person undermines that belief or tries to toss it aside we feel as though they are tossing our very selves aside.

Can we find ways to evaluate how our core life experiences shape the ideas we esteem and the positions we hold? If we want to converse civilly, we must also examine ideas or positions that result from equally genuine and valuable life experiences, even if they are not our own. Seen in this light, Flake’s call is surely necessary, if not noble. I’m thankful he used his platform to name incivility when he saw it, but I am afraid our conversation on civility is a distraction from the policy issues that undergird it. Many of us, like a starving person offered a piece of bread, seize these critiques of how we speak to one another, consuming them with gratitude. Something in us resonates as we cry, “Finally! We’re better than this! We value character and good ideas, we don’t bully and rely on stereotypes!”

 The truth, of course, is that biases often impact our speech, assumptions and thinking without our recognizing them; however, I’m afraid that when we focus on speech, we miss the more important point. The biases that ooze out in our discourse, shocking us, heavily influence our ideas about fairness and justice. They impact the policies we support, and allow us to vote into law ideas that codify our incivility. Our discourse is surely problematic, but if we think our words are unkind, think about the policies those words produce. Our speech can be civil while our policies do violence to those with little power. I’m afraid we have all taken up the banner of civil discourse, while ignoring the necessity of civil policies.

This week a photo depicting a white man in blackface next to a Klansmen was found on the Medical School yearbook page of Virginia’s Governor. He apologized for his poor taste and begged for the right to earn the trust of Virginians. Bafflingly, a day later he claimed he couldn’t recall if he was actually in the picture, so it should not reflect poorly on him, although he did recall using a bit of shoe polish to darken his skin on another occasion. As the mounting calls for his resignation clash with his refusal to do so, many people are consumed with labeling him racist or with arguing it was a long time ago and we all make mistakes.

Our past choices—the things we thought funny or appropriate—certainly reveal much about what we valued and to whom we listened. When they surface, it is customary to argue indefinitely about what those choices reveal about us then and now. However, such discussions distract us from a better question: Has he governed in a way that rejects stereotypes, racial hierarchies, and a preference for the powerful at the expense of the poor, or has he not? Who are his friends and advisors today? Rather than arguing about whether a picture makes one racist, what if we expanded our conversation so that we examine how the actions of a person demonstrate their values?

Let’s ask more of ourselves than Senator Flake or Governor Northam do, so that we don’t lose sight of the physical impact of our uncivil speech or past jokes. Yes, we need to clean up our rhetoric, and engage others with respect. How much more important is it for us to see the devastating impact of our choice to overlook the lives of others?

I’m afraid we have all taken up the banner of civil discourse,

while ignoring the necessity of civil policies.

 My hopeful conclusion is simply this: civil discourse and civil governance are not mutually exclusive. Let’s be people of word and deed. Let’s be people who don’t just point fingers at others, but who ask ourselves how we came to believe the things we believe. Whose experience did we value when we decided how the world worked and what solutions are needed? Please do call out incivility, or past racist acts, but it is foolish to then call it a day, stopping with our speech or personal behavior alone. We must take the next step and appeal to one another for ongoing civil governance. Let’s ask our leaders to behave and speak respectfully, but let’s demand that they support policies that treat all people civilly.