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.

crushing others (and ourselves)

“Remember what you value most right now.” I had called my closest friend for a pep talk as I drove to meet with a principal of a school I had loved for years. The school had supported and taught our growing family as we navigated the elementary years, but now we had been rezoned for a new—and very socio-economically and racially diverse—school in our neighborhood. Although we had been granted a waiver to stay, I was driving to tell my dear friend and principal that we would release our waiver, pull our remaining kids out, and change schools. I called for a pep talk because I was scared I would back out, and even more because I wasn’t at all confident that I was making the right choice.

The math looked like this: Our old school is the best in the state, warm and loving, challenging academically, with an incredible community. It is nestled in a very wealthy, mostly white school zone, and my kids thrived there. The dilemma was that we wanted our kids to grow up instinctively aware that their experience is not the only experience. We wanted them to know that a logo on a sweatshirt, the size of a house, and the tone of flesh are not indicators of trustworthiness. Because our society is largely segregated along lines of class and race, my kids won’t KNOW these truths unless they LIVE them. Our math led us to the conviction that we could help our kids build a solid academic foundation, but we couldn’t overcome the deficits that came from not sharing school and friendship with diverse others. Unless they spend a lot of time with people from distinct backgrounds, kids grow up having to take our word for it that every person is created with dignity, is valuable, and can be a great friend.

When she told me to remember what I value most right now, my friend was reminding me that I was about to tell a principal I loved that I was leaving a school I trusted because I wanted my kids to have the privilege of going to school with all kinds of kids. There were 100 reasons not to make the choice we were making, but there were also reasons to put them in a different school. Reasons that mattered deeply to us.

It is often wise to make choices bolstered by conventional wisdom. It is easy to let the status quo endorsed by others become a normal that offers us comfort and stability. In a week when we have all been tossing around the words of Dr. King though, it is worth saying out loud that it is costly to say we value a thing that we don’t actually value. Dr. King, with great prophetic wisdom, reveals to us how costly it was on the progress of the Civil Rights Movement when well meaning, moderate white folks told him they supported equality but wanted him to stop causing such a stir. They asked him to trust them, to do the right thing by continuing to obey unjust laws that protected a status quo that oppressed and abused people of color. We now understand that when we say we are for justice, but remain silent in the face of injustice, the vulnerable among us pay a price.

However, they are not the only ones who pay; indeed, it costs our own souls when we continue to say we want a certain kind of community but then prop up a destructive status quo. It tears at the soul to pretend to care about civility when we endorse policies that are not just uncivil, but inhumane. Our minds and bodies and souls and wills are interconnected, so when we say we value one thing but actively choose another it fractures our beings in small ways. When we say we value diversity but get annoyed when a different opinion wins at work, we fracture our souls. When we say we value justice and redemption but use for-profit prisons and border detention centers, we fracture our souls. When we say we value our daughters but look at porn, we fracture our souls. When we say we value all people but think our time is worth more than a grocery clerk’s, we fracture our souls. When we say every fetus deserves a chance to live but we refuse poor kids health- or childcare, we fracture our souls. When we say all work is meaningful but we undervalue those without a degree or who earn an hourly wage, we fracture our souls. When we say we would have stood with Dr. King or would have helped Jews in Nazi Germany but remain silent while brown bodies are viewed with chronic suspicion, we fracture our souls.  When we say we want to appreciate others but we keep our children from interacting with people whose life experiences are vastly different, we fracture our souls. 

In this series of essays reflecting on the way we talk about living and the way we find ourselves living, I am reminded of advice my sister—a counselor—gave me. When she was in graduate school she was fascinated by ethics, by moral relativism and by the process we go through when we make choices. A core belief of her counseling practice is that it is healthy for folks to articulate their values, and then to make decisions consistent with those values. Sometimes when I seek her advice, I realize a little late in the game that she Jedi-mind-tricks me. Rather than giving me advice, she leads me to name the thing I value the most, and then she helps me make a choice that honors my hierarchy of values.

The vast cavern between who we claim to be and who our choices reveal us to be is not just costly “for the least of these.” It hurts our very souls. Let’s take my sister’s advice, and figure out what we actually value. Let’s be honest about what we want, what we need and what we will sacrifice for. Let’s take my friend’s advice and remember what we value most, even when it scares us or leads us to a choice others would not endorse. It is lonely to stand alone, but it is devastating to ourselves and others when we don’t even pause to take a stand at all.