Happy New Year. Stop Lying!

A few years ago I decided to stop lying as a New Year’s resolution. This seemed like a reasonably positive development in my growth as a human. I would not have identified as a chronic misleader, or as a person with a strained relationship with the truth; I was certainly not pathological. My resolution was not an attempt to correct some deep character flaw unique to me. Rather, it felt like a worthy goal—and maybe a necessary one if I wanted to enjoy meaningful relationships—to raise my awareness of how I think and speak. I hoped to pay full attention to the way I characterized my actions in order to do the hard work of fully owning my junk.

 When I told others about my plan to stop lying, many laughed, intrigued, but some were appalled. They seemed to be mostly bothered by the implication I left floating out in the air: If I had resolved to stop lying then I was suggesting to others that I had a big problem with lying. They wanted to protect my reputation from me, and urged me to stop describing my resolution in a way that reflected so poorly on me.

In this way, they missed the point entirely. I resolved, in fact, to stop protecting my reputation. It is exactly the urge to protect ourselves that causes us to edit out our mistakes, misgivings, selfishness, and failings. It is our need to appear good that incentivizes us to not look too closely at our selves. I realized I had a tendency to revise my life in real time in a way that helped me seem awesome, with little regard for others. When I openly shared I planned to confront said tendency, some people lost respect for me, a fact that strikes me as absurd.

More than absurd though, such a reaction confirmed for me that most of us are wholly unwilling to even admit all the ways we subtly choose our own narratives over the narratives of others. Put another way, most of us are pretty good at critiquing others, but we often view ourselves sympathetically. The term myside bias sums this up nicely: we are more likely to truthfully and critically evaluate the arguments of others than we are our own. When it comes to self-reflection, it is difficult to see clearly. Indeed, we often even lie to ourselves, and we have to stop if we want to enjoy lasting community with others.

I have often shared my conviction that defensiveness destroys the possibility of meaningful relationships. In a very real way my commitment to stop lying was less about my own integrity and more about my desire to collaboratively create meaning with those around me. Driven by a need to defend ourselves, we cut off the possibility of discovering truth in community. On the other hand, what if we could learn a new way to be that makes self-defense an odd waste of time? What if we disciplined ourselves in such a way that overcame myside bias by actively inviting others to help us in the work of reflection?

Today, as 2019 begins, I’d like to offer self-honesty as a way to make room for meaningful relationships in our lives. For me, as we’ve just discussed, this work begins with a commitment to stop lying. It then quickly requires me to correct these mistakes, to confess and make amends every time I notice my need to revise history in a way that defends or favors me. My hope is that this personal work will impact our communities in transformative ways.

In the Holy Scriptures that record the life of Christ, there is a story of a man sent before the Messiah to prepare the way for the Lord. His job was to get people ready for the Savior who would bring Good News to poor and broken people. He did this in a few ways: First, he realized that the status quo was to live in a way that protected and defended the self at the expense of others. He instinctively knew this way of being in the world was incompatible with embracing the Messiah, so he rejected a lot of society and lived counter culturally. Next, he was crystal clear about his own weakness. He caused a stir everywhere he went, but he continually stated he was not the main event. He helped people realize they could be honest about their own disappointments and even failings because a Savior was coming to rescue them. Finally, and this is my favorite part, he loved to call out people so committed to their own lies about themselves that they could no longer see the impact of their selfishness on the people around them. He called them snakes sometimes, which feels a bit harsh. But he followed that up with this amazing suggestion: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”

Long story short, this man, John, who lived his life trying to help people get ready for a Messiah who came to create a community of honest people who thrived in their need for each other, knew that self-honesty always led to apologizing and forgiveness, and that doing that kind of self-work always produced fruit. The fruit of honesty is the ability to belong to a community. To be a part of a large and messy we. To stop trying to be right, or well-defended, or exceptional, or deserving. The fruit of repentance is an ever-expanding sense of “us.”

To be a person who fully owns her mess miraculously makes me a person safe for the mess of others.

In 2019, let’s stop lying. Let’s stop revising history to make us look good. Let’s be people willing to see our flaws, to name them, to repent of them, and then to enjoy the fruit John talked about. To enjoy each other, because we have lifted our eyes away from our own reflection long enough to see the beauty in those around us. Happy New Year.

 

when your body says no

This has been a long day in a long week in a long month in a long year, it turns out. I have about 8 half-written essays I could finish to send out into the world tonight. But I’m weary. Given that “mind over matter” might as well be the mantra of the first half of my life, my weariness should be irrelevant to the task I have decided to complete. This is unchartered territory for me.

Here’s the problem: my left eye is twitching uncontrollably. So much so that writing feels impossible in my current state. I have never been one to be thwarted by, or even to recognize, obstacles. My father gave me that. Believe in your work ethic and desire more than you believe anyone who tells you no. If you give up, you fail. In the words of Dory (but with the drive and inflection of a cheerful drill sergeant), “Just keep swimming.” Combined with my mom’s relentless belief in the power of what she calls, “Positive Self Talk,” I am hardwired to not stop. Hell or high water, I’m finishing the thing I said I would do, and it will be pretty fabulous.

But my eye is twitching.

How do we determine our limits? How do we know when we need to stop? For some, stopping is easy, it is the getting started that provides the difficulty. For others, finding a pace that is stable and possible to maintain over the long haul is instinctive. For a person with my drive and determination, however, saying no presents the challenge. It is easy to overlook the toll such an approach to life has on relationships, on rest, on balance. This twitching eye, though, is impossible to overlook.

When the body says no, we are left with a few options:

1) We can surrender, crawl in bed, and cease all activity until restoration comes. If this is the path taken, this pattern is likely to repeat itself. Not wise.

2) We can ignore the body’s signs, and charge on, mind-over-matter-mantra in tact. We can refuse to slow, to rest, to quit. In the words of Bono, we can “ready for the crash.” Not wise.

3) We can observe our body’s flares, and then widen our gaze. Observe the pace, the multitasking, the energy spent, the energy regained. Look for the rhythm, explore the moments of rest. interrogate the drive, perceive the fallout.

Twitching eye and all, I believe the wise course before me is to hit pause while I observe the living that brought me to this life. For tonight, I am leaving a thing undone. It feels like good practice. (The parents who raised me to always lean in now speak to me of self-care, of avoiding burnout…perhaps there is wisdom in the eye that twitches in order to slow us down).

I offer this essay half-written as an artifact of my pausing and observing. I send it out with a prayer that you will know more easily than me when it is time to close the laptop and let the deadline go.

the danger of exceptional thinking: immigrants in America

Our country suffers from a crisis, and it is poisoning our communities, invading our border towns, altering our schools, frustrating our communication, and taking our jobs.  No, the root of this calamity is not immigration.  It is amnesia. 

The idea of “America” is defined in conflicting ways, and can represent a beacon of democratic hope or the epitome of neocolonialism to those who live within and outside our borders.  However we see ourselves, we certainly have dominant American values: Normative culture desires the right to worship and the right to improve our station in life with hard work; in short, and above all, we value independence, advancement and freedom.  Such narratives of the “American Way” dominate our thought lives; and yet, I would argue that these ideals are held and acted upon in incredibly thoughtless ways.  Many of us prize the liberties of religion, freedom of movement, and self-possession, and yet, the America that exists for many of our inhabitants is neither accessible nor free.  I do not attempt to write a nuanced approach to immigration policy here; instead, I offer crucial historical context that will hopefully encourage us to think again about the way we think about immigrants and their place among us.

We claim to have always belonged, and forget that all of us were once outsiders. 

Our country has well-documented waves of immigration, each of which were met with violence, accusations of ruining the country, and brandings of outsider status.  Indeed, since before the American Revolution, we have targeted and excluded Chinese, Germans, Jews, Irish, Italians, Japanese, Muslims and Mexicans in different decades.  We have a long history of blaming people from other countries for our own discomfort, documented by decades of legislation that prevent specific nationalities from entering the United States.  In American history, periods of stagnation and uncertainty have usually been manipulated to lead to periods of fear, fueling nativist impulses that inevitably exclude and scapegoat anyone who can easily be called an outsider.  Indulging our most basic instincts, we seem to believe blaming others will distract us from the causes of our uncertainty or loss.  Listed on paper, these laws, grouped chronologically by hatred and rejection of one country or another, seem rather silly, and quite bigoted.  The fact that this history is not referenced as appropriate context for our current immigration discussion stems from our collective amnesia.

I posit that amnesia is the root of the identity crisis currently portrayed as an immigration crisis because our country has only existed for 240 years.  This means that even the longest settled of our families have been “American” for less than 10 generations.  Among American power brokers (a group from which native peoples have been systematically excluded), immigration is therefore a part of every single American narrative.  Despite the fact that these migrating narratives are actually shared by every family, most of us whose families have been here for three generations or more instead use these narratives to create distance between “us” and “them.”  In my view, this distance, which leads to elitism, exclusivity, and possessiveness, stems from America’s favorite past time: Celebrating our own exceptionality. 

We claim to have always belonged, and forget that all of us were once outsiders. 

We reconcile our history as outsiders with our current orientation as insiders in one of two ways.  The first is outright, willful, amnesia.  We simply pretend we climbed out of Noah’s ark and onto American dry land.  We have always spoken English, loved white picket fences, baseball and church on Sundays.  We claim to have always belonged, and forget that all of us were once outsiders.  I think this commitment to telling our stories of hard work and belonging are actually the purest demonstration of American identity: We tell stories to help us articulate who we are and to whom we belong.  Most often, the narratives we tell ourselves about our histories are stories of ascension, proving that we were destined to belong.  American story-telling is crucial to our identity construction because stories help us create community.  Importantly though, the stories of our own belonging—in which we embody the essence of Americaness—purposely exclude others.  A collective amnesia allows us to embrace our legacy of belonging, even as we ignore others, denying them their stories of ascension.

The second avenue we take to reconcile our own migrating history with our now very settled selves is the doctrine of exceptionality.  Yes, my family immigrated here in the last century, but we were already basically Americans in our hearts, we simply had the misfortune of being born Irish, Italian, English, Canadian or German.  We loved church, and felt called by God to come here.  We already knew how to work hard, and we loved freedom.  We were not asking for a handout, just a chance to fulfill our own American Dream.  I guess you could call us immigrants, but we were different, exceptional, and not like those people creating today’s immigration crisis.

Instead of finding compassion for people experiencing the hardships our families once faced and overcame, we reject the noble effort required to uproot, work hard and create a new life one step at a time.  Connecting with others, finding empathy for their hopes and dreams, requires us to recognize the ways in which we are similar. 

This claim of exceptionality prevents relationships in several ways.  It destroys any chance of a shared history that connects people in real community.  It prevents empathy from shaping our connections with others.  Instead of finding points of similarity and compassion for people experiencing the hardships our families once faced and overcame, we reject the noble effort required to uproot, work hard and create a new life one step at a time.  Connecting with others, finding empathy for their hopes and dreams, would require us to recognize the ways in which we are similar.  Our commitment to exceptionality, to framing our journeys with idealistic terms of destiny, prevents us from recognizing the humanity in others. Finally, we support negative stereotypes of new immigrants and Americans in order to widen the space between us and them.  If we allow our collective amnesia to fuel our false narratives of exceptionality, then we can only think of immigrants as “them”, never “us.”

Our commitments to our amnesia and exceptionality are as strong as our commitment to preserving the American Dream and the American Way.  The great irony is that, because of American exceptionality, we are actively destroying the fabric of society made of the values we say we uphold.  As we look to pass lasting legislation regarding Dreamers and for immigrants living and working here below the radar, perhaps we should remember that many of our families came to America as outsiders who also dreamed.