the state of us: how we do the darkness

This week has been hard.  Two people some of us feel we have known or appreciated for years died through violent acts of self harm.  News of suicide tends to cause suicidality in others, so this week also brought concern for those who struggle with demons of mental anxiety and illness.  A child I love very much has been terribly ill, and I have watched his parents suffer deeply with confusion, exhaustion and grief.  I have friends who lost babies, friends whose teenagers seem determined to destroy the good, friends who ache for those marginalized by power in their cities, friends who cannot get pregnant and friends whose marriages are compilations of misfires, resentments and coverups.  To quote a hilarious friend, “What in the actual hell is happening here?”

These types of weeks usually lead me to dark places.  Why is this precious child suffering so much?  Why must parents suffer with such loss?  Why does our society reward greed and ignore those wounded in the process? Why is marriage, or adulting in community for that matter, so difficult? How can a person as thoughtful and engaging and curious as Anthony Bourdain hang himself?  How can Kate Spade, who was fighting for her health with intentional intervention, and creating a new brand that gave her energy, give up on life?  

We don’t have answers to these questions, but as we try to move through such darkness I’d like to suggest three avenues of productive thought.  First, disease and un-well-ness are with us, indeed.  Second, the way we often engage each other can lead to profound loneliness.  Third, the presence of bad does not erase the presence of good in the people around us!

We are not well.  Suicide and a host of other mental and physical illnesses are on the rise.  We are obese.  We are lonely.  We are fearful.  We blame.  And yet, I think most of us live expecting to find the “good life.”  Many comfortable Americans are shocked and appalled when confronted with a hardship or roadblock.  We spent the weekend with my fabulous inlaws, and this morning, after eating his beloved made-from-scratch-by-Jojo-coffeecake, my third child was asked to take his plate to the dishwasher.  “What?!”, he retorted, “I don’t deserve this!”  Hyperbole aside, his words voice the way many of us feel when life absolutely does not turn out the way we hoped.  People get sick.  People experience devastating loss.  People are hurting all the time.  Why do we think we will be exempt from pain?  It might be helpful to evaluate our expectations, understanding that we can live with joy and hope but that injustice and disease will likely be part of our story.  

I in no way suggest pessimism or nihilism as a path forward.  Instead, I think an honest understanding of our personal and collective histories prepares us for the hard thing staring us in the face.  Rather than celebrating only stories of ascendance, of upward mobility, take the time to know your history.  You likely belong to a family, a country, or a religion that has had profound seasons of transcendence and profound moments of grief.  We are not automatons, but human beings who live and love and ache and cry and abuse and absolve and win and lose.  Tell yourself the whole story of you, and you might find you are very well equipped to walk through the dark night of the soul you now face.

If you want to know how to walk through loss, talk to a person who lives at or below the poverty line.  Talk to a person whose skin tone is deemed suspicious in America.  Talk to a person who lives off the land.  Talk to a person with chronic pain or disability.  Talk to a person who has never expected life “to be fair.”  These warriors in our midst should become our mentors.  For generations, many have faced setbacks, injustices and illnesses with little relief, and therefore developed capacities for perseverance and patience that I do not have.  When I want to know how to forgive betrayal, how to believe God is good, or how to think creatively about healing, I go to friends often overlooked by society.  We will encounter un-well-ness, and we might be better equipped if we accepted it will come, and then asked seasoned others to help us navigate the dark.

We must next acknowledge that most of the ways we “belong” do not provide real community.  Measuring our value through followers, quantifying our lives through published stories or images, feeling loved by the number of likes…these metrics fall short when we face real pain or despair.  Clicking “like” can feel like an affirmation of another’s personhood, but is it the same as meeting for a drink, asking them about their best or worst moment of the week, and then processing that narrative in real time?  Not a chance!  I am not opposing new ways of connecting; rather, I think we must at least consider our deficits if our engagement with others is mostly through social media.

Finally, remember the good.  Just because things are terrible does not mean all things are terrible.  I have had a hard week.  Nevertheless, I spent time with a cancer survivor, texted with people whose anxiety and mental illness no longer define them, remembered that a bad diagnosis does not always predict an outcome.  An older mentor held me while I sobbed.  Friends texted who knew I was hurting just to check in.  I was part of a community coming together to love those overlooked and ignored by wealth in Nashville.  I walked with a friend who told me feeling lost and unsure of where I am does not mean I will be there forever; indeed, it is likely part of my process.  A friend called who knows I need some love. 

In the midst of grief and despair—which will surely come for all of us—there are rays of light.  There are moments of hope.  Find them.  Be them for others.  Show up. Call. Embrace the awkward and get in the mire with others.  Sometimes there are no answers, but being present, witnessing pain together, feeling your way in the dark with another, can provide even more relief than an answer could.

the state of us: in defense of context, take two

A glitch in our system prevented this essay from going out. I share it here again, because context matters....

Jon Stewart is a brilliant thinker and satirist, and in my view the public sphere is less informed without his voice.  When he ran Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, pollsters claimed that a majority of millennials looked to Stewart for primary news; he was their information source.  Many older Americans decried this as a sign of the decline of our country’s intellectual rigor, or of the lack of seriousness and discernment young people possessed.  To be fair, Stewart himself adamantly claimed he was not, nor did he try to be, a trusted source for news.  He is a comedian, and that is all he claimed to be.  However, I think Stewart regularly offered us something news agencies—and most people—lack: context.

How do we come to know the things we know? Could the answer illuminate the sources of our alleged divide?  Our fractious citizenry is a result of our inability to contextualize our unique realities.  We live in circles largely segregated along economic, racial, ethnic and political lines.  These lines, invisible though they may be, are powerful, and they keep us from interacting regularly with people whose experiences and backgrounds are largely different from our own.  We love to yell about the problems this insulated living causes. “Get out of your echo chamber!” “You live in such a bubble.” “You only reached that conclusion using confirmation bias.” The list of accusations goes on, even though our divided communities ensure many of us DO live in bubbly echo chambers. 

The work of self examination required to recognize my bias, to trace its roots, and to mitigate its impact, can be exhausting.  Nevertheless, we cannot be responsible stewards of our citizenship without contextualizing our experiences with the experiences of people who live very differently than we do.  For instance, if my view of police is based on the positive experiences of white friends who live in safe, wealthy areas, then I might passionately defend all policemen as dutiful servants who are patient, respectful and levelheaded in every instance.  On the other hand, if my view of police is based on the negative experiences of black friends who live in a part of town overlooked by investment, then I might passionately accuse all policemen of being overly aggressive and suspicious, more likely to use force than to have a conversation.  Without the context of another’s point of view, our perspectives become reactionary.  In every interaction, we need to recognize our own perspectives and then intentionally contextualize those opinions with the thoughts of others.

The way we access information also demonstrates our need for contextualization.  Increasingly, we are consumers of “the media” rather than informed citizens who advocate for important ideas and people.  We are reactive to sensation, rather than intentionally engaged in the diverse realities of living in America.  I don’t blame us for this reactionary living.  The onslaught of information to which we are privy is overwhelming.  Most of us lack the capacity to curate which information is helpful or necessary, so we give that job to trending social media feeds, and to companies who own news stations and papers.  Without knowing we have done it, we allow them to decide what is necessary, or what angle matters.  Some do a better job than others at providing context for the information they share.  However, we often consume what they present as isolated fact, rather than discovering an independent, historically rooted and thoughtfully framed context.

The point here is not to demonize “the media.”  As David Dark often says,  “there is no the media.”  Rather, we are all implicated in a system that keeps us uninformed, spoon fed with snippets that make us furious, stripping away both nuance and context.  We are implicated because we consume our news in this way, like cows huddled in a corner rather than exploring the expansive field before us. 

How might we shift from passive acceptance to actively contextualizing our views of the world? A few thoughts:

1)   Take inventory of the ways you engage news.  Do you spend energy informing yourself, or do you accept arbitrary knowledge of the school board, affordable housing accessibility, limits to religious freedom, state of welfare, and the condition of your state’s guns laws? Observe your pursuit or avoidance of “news.”

2)   Think about that pursuit or avoidance.  If you avoid the news, is it because it feels too “political” and somehow dirty? If this resonates with you then know you are surely not alone. However, consider this: The ability to insulate yourself, protected from any policy decision your government makes, is a privilege not enjoyed by many who struggle pay check to pay check.  It is also worth noting here that when you make a habit of giving your political power away, it is very difficult to get it back.

3)   If you think most news sources are terribly biased, consider sampling all of them.  Rather than repeat attacks of, “Fake News!” or “They have an agenda!”, take time to listen to a variety of sources. If you believe that a certain outlet is overtly biased yet successful, it behooves the informed citizen to spend time getting to know those powerful voices.  When you listen to disparate voices it might make you angry, but it could also provide context for you to understand the many forces at play around a given issue. Such exposure might help you communicate well with people who lean differently from you.

We live lives largely contextualized by the people we know best, and by news sources we find agreeable.  Such self-referentially rooted context is no context at all, and leads to the passionate defense of positions not fully explored.  As citizens who share a country, we fundamentally understand we share spaces with others.  As long as we value only the opinions of those who are the most like us, we will continue to react badly to those who have a different way of experiencing or seeing the world.

Note well that the forces around you do not provide context; indeed, if you are weary of today’s reactionary blaming, do the work to contextualize your own experience with the experiences of others.  Contextualize your acquisition of news with outlets who spin in service of a different power.  It is the job of each of us to build a bigger table, invite others to have a seat, and then share our experiences.  If we do, perhaps we can stop reacting with anger and blame for people who dare respond differently.  Offering your story to the stories of others will bring insight to our shared concerns.  As Jon Stewart once mocked cable news, “This portion of our program is brought to you by… Context. It’s the shit you have in your tape library that gives seemingly isolated instances perspective."

the state of us: on Memorial Day

For Memorial Day weekend, a lot of my family gathers at my parents’ home, where cousins swim, yard games are played, and huge meals are prepared by many hands.  This morning, around a table littered with breakfast remnants, the adults sat, forks in hand, unceremoniously sharing a large bowl of watermelon.  It was delicious, so firm as to be almost crunchy, with a depth of sweetness so refreshing I felt my body acknowledge that summer had, in fact, arrived. 

My husband expresses his delight in food with what I call aggressive affirmation.  It is not uncommon for him to throw a napkin, slam his hands on a table, or curse loudly when he tastes something he likes. “Are you kidding me? D#mn!” “Holy Sh?t! Does it get any better than this??” This morning, slapping his napkin, he asked, “How do you always have the best watermelon?”

My parents plant, cultivate and harvest a huge garden with their neighbors (#lifegoals), and they know a thing or two about growth.  “I pick the best because I check the bottom to make sure it’s yellow.  It means it sat in the dirt for a while to ripen. They didn’t pick it too early.  If you find one with a little dried mud on it, even better.”

A national holiday set aside to the idea of remembering seems kind of fabulous to me, and I’d like to explore how our collective discolored bottom can shape American memory.  Memory is a tricky thing. It is not fixed, not remembered in a vacuum, not fair.  A friend of mine cracks me up when her kids come home venting about a teacher in school.  She listens, waits a beat, then says, “I wonder how your teacher would tell this story?”  You see what she did there!  She reminds them their version is not the only, and might even be the least trustworthy one. 

Memories best reflect the past when they are contextualized with other memories.  Postmodern literature gets a bad rap among many Christians and conservatives for “playing with the truth.”  From my perspectives, postmodern thinking is incredibly helpful in getting at the nature of memory.  Single stories do not accurately describe people, just as single storytellers cannot capture the all of an experience.  We need multiple narrators in order to capture all the facets of light.

My sister and her husband arrived this weekend directly from our nation’s capitol.  Having visited the American museum, they were thinking about the stories we tell ourselves about what it means to be an American.  Should a few generous white folks who helped free slaves and fund their independent businesses be used to contextualize the terrible cruelty of the government and church sanctioned system of white supremacy and slavery? Yes, I think so.  Should it be given equal weight in a way that diminishes the evil grip slavery had and has on our American psyche? Not a chance. 

Should the fact that Andrew Jackson adopted a Native American child be used to contextualize our understanding of the man who slaughtered natives and forced the Trail of Tears? Yes, I think so.  Should that fact erase or minimize the devastating impact his leadership had on the lives of indigenous Americans? Not a chance.

Many of us are struggling this weekend with the new AG Sessions’ policy that ICE criminally charge any adult who crosses our border illegally, separating their kids from them in the process, sometimes permanently.  I have seen many pleas from heartbroken people who cry, “This cannot be happening in America! This is not who we are.”  These pleas evoke American ideals of compassion and generosity, and try to remind us that we are a people of justice, a beacon of humane morality for the world.  This notion exists because of the tricky nature of memory.  A robust telling of our history would remind us that American land was established, American wealth was created and American power has grown precisely through the forced removal of kids from their parents through the systemic dehumanization of slaves, native peoples, and immigrants. 

I say this as a proud American.  I recognize that acknowledging our history of evil practices is considered unpatriotic; however, I work very hard to seek our entire history, and I feel most patriotic when I acknowledge the good with the bad.  The American ideals of bravery and sacrifice are worth celebrating on Memorial Day.  It is incredible that we could create a government by, for and of the people, established on the principal that we are all equal and worthy of sharing the dream together.  I propose that it is does not diminish that idea in the least for us to admit that we were lying about the implementation then, have struggled to make it true for over 200 years, and probably aren’t getting it right now.  We set the bar really high! This Memorial Day, can we stop pretending we have consistently gotten it right? Can we instead celebrate by remembering and sharing all of our stories, even the tough ones?

It is easy to slice into a fabulous watermelon, slurping the juices down like a kid perched on a picnic table.  It is harder to remember that the sweetest watermelons are formed in the dirt.  This Memorial Day, I remember the good and the bad. I celebrate the fact that so many men in my family were honorable soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines.  But I also need to remember that many of them developed terrible addictions, didn’t get to meet their own kids until they were toddlers, or had wives who sacrificed their parenting partner, going it alone the majority of the time.  When I think about honoring my ancestors, my country, our legacy as Americans, I hope and pray I model their bravery enough to remember all of it.  If the only American History we memorialize is of good guys with guns in their hands, courage in their steps and stars in their eyes, then we forget how easily we can betray the sacrifices they made.  As Bono, of U2 sings, “It’s not a place / This country is to me a thought / That offers grace / For every welcome that is sought…It’s not a place / This is a dream the whole world owns / The pilgrim’s face / It had your heart to call her home...There’s a promise in the heart of every good dream / It’s a call to action, not to fantasy / The end of a dream, the start of what’s real / Let it be unity, let it be community / For refugees like you and me / A country to receive us.” 

Let’s celebrate the real America, ripening in the dirt, not the fantasy that blinds us to the work we need to do to honor the legacies of the best who came before us. Happy Memorial Day.