“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.