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.

hello, old friend

I studied in Edinburgh, Scotland in college, during a time of life when my ethic could best be articulated as, Try Everything. Haggis, check. Scotch, check. Backpacking everywhere, check. Driving a car on as many roundabouts as possible, check. From Loch Ness to the Lake District to Brussels to the Ring of Kerry, if anyone offered me a spot, I grabbed my bag and jumped on a train.  It came naturally, then, to agree to join the Hillwalking club at the University of Edinburgh. I like hills. I like walking. I hoped to like the Highlands, which was the location of our first weekend hillwalking adventure. I signed up.

Needless to say, I was taken aback when they handed out crampons and ice picks before we left our mountain lodge for our first walk. 7 hours, a white-out blizzard and some mild frost bite later, I realized that what they meant by “hillwalking” was “ice climbing.” I wanted to walk hills, and previously even wished the club had a more aggressive sounding name, like Mountain Hiking Club. I was ready to walk, to hike, to burn and sweat. But dear reader, I was not ready for ice picks, roping in, or blizzards.

As we ease into 2019 it is helpful to prepare ourselves for the year ahead. Anticipating celebrations of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., many of us will pledge our allegiance to living lives closely aligned with his ethic of life. We will say we are committed to reaching across lines of difference, to pursuing diverse perspectives, to resisting injustice and to responding with non-violent, non-defensive patience in the face of bigotry or hate. Our memory of his work makes it look so easy, and he seems so noble that we want to join him! Many of us fervently believe we must intentionally reach across lines of difference as we big bigger tables with more seats in our effort to build a just society. The work is necessary, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy.

Before we pledge our allegiance, it is useful to understand what we are signing up for. When I say I love diversity and want to pursue it and promote it in my spheres of influence, I am saying I love realizing I have bias, that my privilege has blinded me, and that I am often hurtful and offensive. When I say I want more diversity I am asking to actively decrease my own power and control, to increase moments of discomfort and tension as I apologize more, seeing my deficits and bad assumptions. When I say I like diversity, I am saying I enjoy undermining my own perspective.

I assert these truths as a person who actively pursues diversity, and wants to live and work in environments where diverse perspectives influence culture and policy. As such, I am interested in closing the gap between what we claim to want and what we commit to do consistently. We often talk a good game when we begin a new year or role, but it proves difficult to maintain our commitments when they make life uncomfortable or inefficient. We think our fervent desire for certain values will translate into inhabiting those values within our communities; sadly, when relationships prove difficult or messy, we give up. Because we fail to realize the ramifications of the vision to which we say we are committed, we unwittingly reinforce our own sense of disillusionment and inertia. While some dreams are indeed difficult to reach, much of our failure comes not because the dream is unworthy or unattainable, but because we give up when our naïve expectations are not met.

How can we increase our capacity to stay invested even when the dream proves difficult? Passionate reformers have many suggestions, but allow me to offer one piece of advice: If you want to be a person whose stated values reflect authentic aspects of your practical self and habits, it is vital that you honestly reflect on the commitments you make. If I understand all the decentering adjustments and awkwardness a life committed to pursuing diverse perspectives will ask of me, I can embrace such uncomfortable requirements when they arise.

When we speak honestly about our hopes and resolutions, we anticipate the sacrifice such commitments demand, thus preparing us to stay in the game even when it requires Thor-levels of grit. Such honest anticipation offers us a level of comfort, of familiarity, when the task before us feels difficult. In my own commitment to elevating diverse perspectives, I am sometimes caught off guard by how inefficient such a habit is. Now, when a meeting is not moving as quickly as I had hoped because it takes time and painstaking clarity to hear from and honor many diverse perspectives and notions of “normal,” I have a greater capacity to sit in the tension I feel. When I sense the frustration that often comes from people in this type of setting, when I feel the trickle of sweat begin to form down my back, when I wonder if tempers or accusations might soon escalate, I think, “Hello old friend, I’ve been expecting you.”

If I really intend to be a person committed to making space for diverse perspectives at every level, I must expect this moment with every fiber of my being. Such a move offers us the chance to expect our old friends—tension, misunderstanding and inefficiency—rather than abandoning the task at hand when they show up. Anticipate these old friends, and don’t run for the exit when they appear! Instead, think, “Ah yes, and here you are, just as I thought you would be.” The remarkable gifts of collaborating across lines of difference to find the best solutions are worthy of our honest commitment to stay in the game.

I am a terrible hill walker, mostly because I gave up after that one measly blizzard terrified me. If I had anticipated the cold, the blinding snow, the burning fingertips, or the uncertainty of losing our bearings, then I might have smiled inside as the winds picked up. “Hi old friend, I’ve been expecting you. Let’s walk together as I figure out which step to take next.” Let us not talk falsely now, but instead pledge our allegiance to ideals only when we have gazed them full in the face, ready for all they might bring.

I want that! (No, I don't...)

Sunday mornings, for parents who also go to church, can be the worst. These mornings often involve grumpy children, yelling parents, and breaking speed limits. Exacerbating the delays, the tension, the meanness, is often a subtle despair that Sunday mornings should not be like this!! On the way to church, for goodness’ sakes!

And yet, things are often not like they ought to be. My family’s Sunday tradition involves getting donuts on the way to church. Yes, it unfortunately means having to leave earlier, but yes, it also means no breakfast making is required, so it’s a win overall. A few years ago my kids were on the trampoline, in pjs, wrestling, on Sunday morning. I, using my I’m-an-amazing-mom-gently-reminding-you-that-we-need-to-leave-soon voice, calmly yelled out the back door that if they wanted donuts we had to leave in ten. 

“We do! We do want donuts!”  Wrestle-mania continued.

Three minutes went by. Still wrestling.

“Hey savage ones! If you want donuts get in here and get dressed!”

“We do! We do want donuts!” More Bouncing. More wrestling.

Three more minutes went by.

“You have lost your everloving minds if you think I’m getting you donuts if we are not pulling out of this driveway in 3 minutes. “  Less gentle. Less amazing.

“We do! We do want donuts!”

“Really? Cause I can’t tell AT ALL. You say you want donuts but you are doing NONE OF THE THINGS REQUIRED to get donuts. At some point you have to move your bodies toward your closets if you actually, in fact, want donuts. You can’t just keep saying it while performing pile drivers on each other.”

And just like that, 4 little bodies tumbled out of the netting, onto the grass, up to their closets, and into the car. Donuts received, along with tardy slips from Jesus.

As we slide into 2019, there are lessons here for us. Like children—especially when it’s resolution time—we wholeheartedly claim to want things we have no intention of pursuing. The kids adamantly asserted their desire for pastries, but really they just wanted to play. Last week I suggested we do the self-reflection required to tell the truth in the new year. If we want to share meaningfully engaged lives with others, we must work to stop our subtle practice of defending ourselves, seeing only our best intentions, and revising history to make ourselves seem noble in every encounter.

Extending that thought, it is helpful to recognize that we often say we want certain realities in our lives without taking steps to realize them. Some examples are easy:

We say we want to be healthy, but we like Doritos more than running.

We say we want a good night’s sleep, but we drink too much or watch TV late into the night.

We say we want to be less busy, or to have less distracted kids, but we overcommit everyone we care for without blinking an eye.

We want to be people who read, but we pick up a book and then pick up an iphone…and then an hour disappears.

For the next few weeks I’d like to slow the tape for us, offering time to think about how we talk about the things we hope for.  Approaching middle age, it is easy to imagine one day looking back on a few decades of failed attainment. I never got the rhythm of rest and work down. I never got my kids to put their phones down. I never got the whole family dinner made at home thing to work. I never had the relationships I wanted with my neighbors.

My fear is that this narrative of failure is coming for all of us, and rather than understanding how we got here, we will revise history to make ourselves seem disciplined and intentional, while painting our dreams as idealistic or impossible. In other words, we will easily assume we all live in a circle of failure because it is too hard to be the people we hope to be. We tried, and repeated for years that we hoped for X. Since X never happened, it must be that X is impossible.

Our tendency to assume our unrealized hopes are impossible is another way we lie to ourselves. For instance, I talk and teach a LOT about neighboring. This is a clunky word, but it conveys the idea that we want to care well for the people we know. We literally want to be good neighbors to our neighbors. We want to be people and have people to call in a pinch. We want to share meals and watch babies and walk dogs. Nevertheless, for many of us, we say we want this while we actively chose our own agendas at the expense of those very relationships.

 For years, I said I wanted to be a good neighbor. However. When a knock came at an inopportune time, or when a never-ending chat in the yard made dinner late, or when being outside somehow beckoned a visit, or when a big party landed cars in my space or noise in my ears, I got annoyed. Without realizing it, I longed for friends-like-family neighbors while actively avoiding such relationships. The truth is that I only wanted amazing neighbors when I needed a favor, or on the one night a year when communal grilling and cocktailing seemed like all I ever wanted in life. I said I wanted to be a good neighbor while sort of hating all the things neighboring requires.

Alas, our capacity for hypocrisy is enormous. We will spend a few weeks here examining the dreams to which we aspire. For now, pay attention to the oft-repeated hopes of your frustrated soul and then examine the ways you approach or fail to approach those hopes. I suspect our problem is not that our dreams are out of reach, but that we fail to understand all that they require. Do not abuse the dream because you lack the stamina to realize it.