not political? get practical: 5 ways to stop being the problem

Last week’s essay made the case that the problem with our current national public devolution is not outrage or political involvement. Rather, our apparent inability to communicate with each other is a result of our obsession with ourselves, our restricted interaction with people whose life experience differs from ours, our clear commitment to prioritize that which furthers our agenda, and our discomfort with ambiguity. I heard from friends who read, nodding, grateful tears running down their faces, and from friends annoyed that I suggested “outrage” or “getting political” could ever be a valid option (and many people in between!). Here’s the thing: We all agree we are really, really bad at talking with each other about the state of America right now; we shake our heads, tisk our lips, and roll our eyes at the state of us, but we fail to recognize that we are both part of the problem and have infinite resources to change our behavior.

I’m a college professor, and I regularly tell my students that we adults have utterly failed them. That we are terrible at talking to each other. That we seem to have no ability to lean in to the lives of people whose experiences differ from ours. That we are actually not the kind of adults anyone should want to be. They laugh, but some of them agree with me. When I remind them that it takes difficult work to recognize our own bias, to admit that the problem in not “out there” but “in here”, that we are deeply lazy, selfish people who love to blame others instead of doing what we can do to make things better, a few of them get a panicked look in their eye, because they know they will turn into us if they don’t find a different way to be in the world.

In an effort to promote a different way to be in the world, this week I’d like to offer suggestions on how to stop screaming at your television/radio/neighbor and instead invest in your own environment, changing the way “normal” is done around you. There are many ways to respond to the Kavanaugh hearings. Decrying public engagement or passion as ridiculous, shallow outrage, is not helpful in my view. Here are a few practical suggestions that might serve the cause of justice and promote communal flourishing as we all learn to be better grown ups who share a country and a neighborhood.

 1)   Don’t undermine women in your life. Don’t use phrases like “middle school girl drama” to describe grudge-holding or silly bickering. Remove gendered insults from your vocabulary. Treat women as if their value and importance to society go far beyond their physical endowments. Teach them to speak up for themselves and then listen and respond when they do so. Don’t talk trash about your mom or mother-in-law, your boss or your waitress.

2)   Instead of raging about the inequality displayed in the Senate, take inventory of your own power. In your home, community or place of work, how are people respected and how is gender navigated? How do you show respect, and who do you silence? Who gets the benefit of the doubt and who is treated with skepticism? Clean up your side of the street, in the places you live and play and work. If you are privy to sexist or denigrating comments, whether sexual in nature or gender-based hyperbole, speak up! Let people know that you are neither safe for male locker room talk nor for females bashing males.

3)   Don’t confuse young men with conflicted and gendered teaching. In the South especially, young men are taught to protect women, to open their doors and to carry their things. Often, the same men who such lessons tell off-color jokes, clearly appraising women’s bodies with their eyes. They extend their “protection” of women to a patronizing withholding of information from women: ‘I don’t trust your ability to function in stress or to contribute to solutions’ gets phrased as, ‘I didn’t want you to worry.’ Don’t tell young men to treat women one way and then undermine that with your own.

4)   Openly engage in the world around you. Refute the bullshit that paying attention or commenting on the political arena is somehow hysterical or an act of outrage. If men can grow up so insulated, with such privilege, that they regularly got blackout drunk and violatingly handsy with women in their paths, yet still demand the respect of others, we should be outraged! If a man spent a career respecting others, admitting mistakes, making amends, and applying the law to society in just ways, but was falsely accused of multiple counts of sexual assault, we should be outraged! If a woman’s understanding of her own body, safety and sexuality was badly impacted by an early assault from an entitled peer, we should be outraged! If our elected officials acted to further a conspiracy of damaging lies, or looked the other way when someone committed multiple counts of perjury, or acted to protect powerful unrepentant sexual assailants, we should be outraged! The presence of outrage does not presuppose an unhealthy person. Engage in the world around you, and consider what will make you speak up, or in whose defense you will stand. If there is no scenario that might make you speak, or gently disagree with a friend, or defend a person your circle has dismissed, then ask yourself what holds your love and loyalty.

5)   Know your history. Face the sexism and abuse and misogyny that has carried our country along. Explore the dark activities we have called normal. Educate yourself on the differences in patriotism and nationalism, between leadership and greed. Look into the divides between who we teach our kids to be and who we are when no one looks or no one cares. Many of our recent public moments could help us face a culture that excuses or even encourages behavior that destroys or handicaps lives. Don’t allow one person to be the anomaly; look for patterns and find your own places of compromise. Face the reality of our past, confront our present, and change the future.

 Our choosing of sides is problematic. Our love of finger pointing, blame, victimization and outrage are absurd. Our jump to accusation and defense are not helpful. But they aren’t the main problem. The answer is not to back away. Apathy is not a spiritual gift. Standing aloof will not bend us toward justice. Perhaps the answer is to get more involved, more engaged. What can you do, tomorrow, to be a part of the solution, rather than blindly being a part of the problem you complain about?

on the virtue of outrage

As Judge Kavanaugh’s Senate Judiciary hearings unfolded on a national stage, tensions climbed, accusations flew, defenses rose, and our discourse tanked. Given the chance to address our conflicted teachings on gendered behavior and how they wound all of us, we failed. I don’t mean to say we failed because Kavanaugh was confirmed, or because a woman was praised as “compelling” and “credible” but ultimately dismissed as neither, or even because of the nearly strict party lines which determined the outcome, although I admit my bias in thinking these things are true and terrible. I am most interested in the failure of our collective consciousness as we reflect on recent weeks. What was revealed, and what we must learn, according to many loud voices, is that we are too partisan and too angry. I have wept, sat stunned and paced angrily for many reasons in the last few weeks, but the thing I lament is much bigger than people addicted to picking sides.

After Judge Kavanaugh cleared the committee, Jeff Flake, from Arizona, took to the Senate floor to suggest the real danger in what just occurred was the elevation of a false binary: You either honor women and vote no on Kavanaugh, or hate women and vote yes. Flake is right that binaries take the nuance, the uncertainty, the confusion about what happened, out of the picture. I too, find binaries absurd, weak attempts to make easy choices of complicated matters; however, the danger here was not a false binary, but the exposure and endorsement of a culture that gives power to people who don’t value the experience of others.

Pastors and pundits alike echoed Flake by saying the real tragedy here was partisan people, addicted to outrage. They make a good point: we are angry and divided, and our problems are certainly exacerbated when we leap to outrage from our huddled corners. However, rather than outrage, I grieve the failure of empathetic listening, of engagement, of the willingness to get involved.

 I am bothered by the grandstanding, the side picking, the blaming anger. Our political habits are troubling, but the realities around which our political circus swirls is devastating:

  • Girls are assaulted at alarming rates, and they often hide this destructive secret in the center of their being, where it continually wounds them.

  • Boys are often raised to respect and even protect women, while simultaneously enjoying porn, celebrating sexual conquests, and noticing the mixed messages adults send them about (dis)respecting themselves and others.

  • We actively endorse the notion that behavioral standards fluctuate depending on one’s location (Vegas), wealth bracket (wealthy kids likely avoid jail), or age (if you are just a kid then a mistake shouldn’t ruin your life, even if your mistake haunts someone else’s).

  • We are more likely to believe devious conspiracy theories than the idea that entitled kids do entitled things, and have little reason to regret or confess them.

With or without Kavanaugh subtext, these revealed realities suggest devastating consequences for our shared future. To say that the primary problem exposed in these hearings is one of angry side picking is to miss the point entirely. First, such a view suggests that every testimony, every word uttered in the public sphere, has a clear agenda. It obscures the idea that truth telling comes from honest reflection, and that meaning making is a communal activity (to paraphrase David Dark). This view presupposes that since we cannot be certain about everything, it is better to stay aloof, uninvolved. Could we care enough about the communities we share to actually listen with respect, even when our stories are messy?

 Second, this point of view is founded on the idea that any meaningful engagement in the public sphere is too much engagement in the public sphere. It suggests that any interest or passion is too much and too far, that reasonable, grounded people abstain from getting involved. If this is actually true then we should not claim to be a democracy, right? How often do you hear a person accosted for thinking about how one’s choices or ideals might affect the people around them: “Stop getting political, I’m just talking about my personal faith/school choice/business habits/tax strategy.” Truth be told, I am not sure what “getting political” means, but if it means investing my time, thoughts and energy in public meaning making, in the creating of norms, in the exploration of potential leaders and their points of view, then “getting political” is the foundation of democratic participation. Could we care about the norms, laws and people who govern us enough to engage ourselves in our governance?

Third, the idea that all who were interested in the Senate procedures, anyone who diligently watched, forming opinions and expressing outrage, was a symptom of ‘the problem with society,’ is based on the notion that our country, courts and legislators are never wrong, and always worthy of our trust. To hold them accountable is a sign of hysteria. This perspective has been used to silence protest and to undercut those who would resist oppression. It suggests that the status quo is always just, so any person who robustly criticizes the system has gone overboard and is simply addicted to outrage, passionate about their passion. The reality is that we have often gotten it wrong in our country. The long arc bends toward justice because people are willing to change the trajectory of the arc. Inertia wins unless a new force is introduced in the pathway. If such a new force is always dismissed as too intense, or too involved, then inertia will win, and injustice will stand. Could we care enough to be outraged?

I understand the impulse to choose apathy instead of engaged dialogue. This is a complicated and high-stakes moment. There is much to learn, much to mourn, much to ponder about the last few weeks. If influential folks decide that our central problem is that people are “too political” or “too outraged,” then I’m afraid I need to announce that I am about to become a bigger problem than I have heretofore been. I care too much about the way our public sphere, courts, leaders, houses of worship and laws treat young women and men to pretend like apathy or divestment is a noble act of reason. It is cowardly to not care, and I invite you to be brave with me, to listen to different perspectives with empathy, and to engage in the process of making meaning out of our messy democracy.

Next week, practical ideas on how to respond to this moment.

 

on resisting: being with

I wrote the following on a very bad day full of very bad news. I wrote it as an act of resistance, because I realized that bad news has a way of becoming the center. The consuming, expanding center of everything. I felt the devouring begin to happen and I refused to allow the monster of bad news to erase the person for whom the news was bad. I wanted to resist the erasure, to remind myself that while bad news can be loud, I could learn to drown it out by singing the song of a remarkable child who belongs to a family who loves him. Today more bad news threatens to take all our attention, and I find myself resisting again. I won’t let the hard things take my eye off the good lives I know. Every instant we commit to loving those who hurt creates a moment of beautiful resistance. As perfect love casts out fear, stubborn belonging dispels the power of evil.

From July:

Today I found out my sister’s son will likely die within a year. He has a brain tumor, and it used to be a gentle tumor stuck in a bad place. This summer it turned into a ferocious tumor that respects no boundaries. His name is Judah, and I have to remember that he is the one, the star of his life, not the damn tumor. The tumor seems to be calling the shots, but Judah’s life is much more than a tumor bearer. He is an image bearer. He was put together by a creative and loving God who knows his name. Who knows his every thought. Who sees each tear that falls, and hears him when he calls.

It is easy to forget this in the midst of hospitals and ERs and pain meds and appointments and tests and labs and waiting rooms and waiting in general. But Judah himself is a gift to us. He is clever. Super smart and observant and notices stuff that others don’t. He loses himself in imaginings. He laughs at funny faces. He latches on to clever turns of phrase. He loves to be the one who knows, who understands, who gets it, and so he builds connections with the adults he trusts. He’ll pick up on a phrase and then, hours later, look at the adult who first said it, and repeat it with a knowing glance, “Oh, here we go again…we’ve been here before.” Endearing, this ability of his to connect. To remember. To create a thing we share. He has made me feel worth observing.

In the face of bad news, it is all too easy to turn away, to shut down, to pretend we don’t care because we can’t imagine how to fix it, to try to minimize the pain by averting our gaze. But when you love someone, these methods don’t work. You can’t turn away, because the grief is in every corner. The only thing to do is to lament. To acknowledge what has been done and to confess what you have done.

To cry out for all the sadness, to witness the pain, to sit in the grief, to behold the breaking heart.

Apathy and indifference feel viable until they aren’t. Distraction works until it doesn’t. Therapists tell us we cannot heal until we talk about our pain. There is power in bearing witness. In being present for the awful.

Sometimes this life can feel like a fight to win. Or an effort to be upwardly mobile. Or a platform to find followers. Or a canvas on which to leave a mark. Or a warehouse in which to horde wealth. Or a story to write that makes you the exceptional hero.

What if it is none of those things? What if life is really about the chance to show up and be present with others? What if life is a block of time in which we get to lend a hand to others, be a companion on a fearful fretful journey, and bear witness in all the possible ways? Bear witness to the truth you have experienced, to the ways of God as you understand them, and also to witness other humans being human? To watch, observe, listen and stand next to? What if life is about being with?

When God gave a vision to Isaiah, his Prophet, about the coming Messiah, the One who would redeem and save the people God created, he called him “Emmanuel.” God with us. I have come to believe that bearing witness to Emmanuel is the best we can do. By this I mean that perhaps the best we can do is to show up in someone’s life and offer to be “with” them. If we hope to emulate God then we must be people who are with other people, as Christ was. We must strive for the “with.”

 In the weeks and months ahead, my sister and her husband will be “with” their hurting son and his siblings. They will be companions. They will observe and listen and lean in. In this way, they will elevate Judah the child of God, not Judah the kid with cancer. Judah is Subject of this story, not the object of a disease. Judah is worth witnessing. Judah is worth being with.

 When we see so much pain around us, from counselor offices to Senate hearings to adolescent angst to refugees fleeing home, let’s work to remember that the people enduring the pain are the ones we want to stand beside. Don’t look to the problem before we see the people suffering underneath the problem. It is so easy to focus on the trouble, to give attention to the pain. The better path though, is to hold on to the uniquely fabulous person underneath all that trouble. Good energy is spent telling the story of a person’s self, refusing to allow them to be eclipsed by the pain they endure or the problem they survive.

Bear witness to the lives of the people around you. Show up. Make time. Pay attention. Remember. These are ways to resist the darkness: Give people a place to belong when the path ahead is dim. Remind them that they are seen and loved, not lost in all the pain. Find the story of them, not just the suffering. Be with.