to live well or to fit well (they're not the same thing)

I am new to rowing, and have spent months feeling like an awkward bird learning to take off and fly. Watching crews on a river, imagining The Boys on the Boat, it looks so fluid, even graceful (unlike my festival of knees and elbows). Last week, when a coach at the gym announced we would do a “Progressive Row” for 15 minutes, increasing in power every minute, I did not know where to begin; not knowing what it feels like to row with power, I couldn’t trust myself to experience progress. Uncertain, I checked the screens of the rowers beside me, and although my screen recorded more power (#winning), the truth remained that I had no idea how to pace myself, what to expect, or what to aim for. So I asked. My coach gently (and awkwardly) suggested I pay attention to my own body instead of screens, to notice when my effort was effective and how much it took to exhaust me. Who knew?

 Many of us suffer from a similar inability to pace ourselves in the public sphere and around our own kitchen tables. What are we allowed to care about, to be bothered by, to strive for, or to challenge? Dialogue across lines of difference rarely feels comfortable, and our instincts fail us in the moments we now frequently encounter. If a person makes a comment demonizing or defending all ___________ (choose your own adventure: men, Muslims, private school kids, women, people of color, rich people, the foreign born, home school kids, Jews, white people, teenagers, Christians, impoverished people), do you counter their assertion? If a person says they are pro-life or pro-choice, do you ask them to clarify what policies they advocate and why? If a person subtly roots a political stance in their faith tradition do you ask them to guide you through their exegesis? If a person utters hate speech, or refutes hate speech, in your hearing, how do you respond?

 Like a flailing new rower, we don’t trust ourselves in such conversations, but instead try to mimic those around us, and in the process, lose our voices. When we look to others to pace us, we abdicate responsibility for our own lives. We work to hit targets—and strive to adhere to cultural norms—set by others.

 Adjusting habits to match the pace of others reduces your ability to check yourself (before you wreck yourself). I am currently raising a few teenagers, and they provide a perfect case study: In real time, I watch them decide if they will live by a code established by their peers or orient their choices around their own set of principles—even if it is confusing and messy. Teenagers are famous for this abdication, allegedly jumping off bridges because their friends think it’s a great idea. In them, we see this lack of discernment as a passing deficit, and shake our heads, knowing they will grow out of it.

Do we, though? Many of us have never learned what it means to move at our own pace. Rather than choosing to live in a way that aligns our actions with our beliefs, we often live in a way that is intentionally less (or more) than our peers. Image-driven apps like Instagram and Snapchat spur us to have enough parenting wins to stay with the pack, or to seem as apolitical as our church, or to have as many friends as the rest of our insta-worlds. The damage comparison does to the soul is well documented. Our efforts to impress, to keep up with a pace set by others, to demonstrate our relevance-but-not-outrage, consumes us. It is a never-ending, potentially all-consuming beast that devours our ability to reflect on how to live our own aligned lives. We seem unable to articulate and pursue priorities consistent with our understanding of our place in God’s economy. When we are unwilling to disregard the power of cultural norms if those norms are not healthy, we are stripped of joy and community.

Unsure of how to live well with others, we look around, instead making sure to fit well with our chosen “people.” Choosing comfort, we pick environments where we don’t stand out, or where we share similar fears, hopes and frustrations, assuring us we are on track. We participate in what sociologists call “hivemind” bias, meaning our understandings of identity, beliefs and positions are reached through our loyalty to the group to which we belong. We see ourselves primarily as part of a specific community, and speak not with individual discernment, but as people supporting “our people.” Furthermore, many of us find our people through homophily, a process that leads us to gravitate toward those with whom we share a clear commonality—often related to race, gender, ethnicity or faith. Homophily leads us to huddle in groups of similarity, ignoring any differences and reinforcing perceptions of unanimity by adhering to the thoughts and positions of the group.

 Cultural (or group) norms have a way of quietly replacing our own sense of values. Norms are rarely intentionally established; rather, they develop over time, gaining strength as the instincts and habits of a few people grow and spread, eventually establishing dominance as unwritten rules of society. Blindly adhering to such norms helps increase the power of those who resonate with that culture, while simultaneously marginalizing those whose instincts do not adhere to those cultural norms. You are either loyal to the hive, and therefore relevant and desirable, or you are isolated and without power. No wonder we struggle to speak up.

 For the next few weeks I plan to explore the ways in which we perform our loyalty to our hive, even if it requires us to betray our own values. We find ourselves in a country in which hate speech is ubiquitous, unchecked, and increasingly linked to violence, where our sense of our hive, our “us,” is so strong that any outsider is an enemy, a threat, or invisible, and where norms require us to cheer on anyone who blames the other side, and crucify anyone who asks us to think about the impact and import of our own words. Who is your hive? Has loyalty to your people replaced your own sense of discernment? Do you know what it feels like to pace yourself, or do you look around, frantically trying to figure out how to be a person sharing space in America?

nationalism isn't patriotic, just ask a confederate

On March 21, 1861, Alexander Stevens, the newly sworn-in Vice President of The Confederate States of America, rose to a lectern in Savannah, Georgia, and addressed a crowd gathered to champion the recent secession of 7 states from the United States of America. Eventually known as the “Corner-stone speech” Stevens then clearly explains the principles that undergird the Confederacy: “All, under our system, stand upon the same broad principles of perfect equality. Honest labor and enterprise are left free and unrestricted in whatever pursuit they may be engaged.” He proudly asserts the Confederate Constitution is based on the “broad principle of perfect equality and justice;” indeed, Stevens’ oratory inspires, assured of its own moral high ground. Perfect equality is inspired, but the Confederacy was based on the principles of racial hierarchy, white supremacy and fear of those deemed unworthy. Calling violent oppression equality doesn’t make it good, just like calling nationalism patriotic doesn’t make it noble.

Stevens celebrates the Confederacy when he boasts, “The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.” Explaining that secession primarily aimed to protect and defend the practice of slavery, he acknowledges that most people, including the founders, believed “the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.” Nevertheless, he argues, “those ideas…were fundamentally wrong.” He then utters the lines that give his speech its name:

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Stevens pledges his allegiance to the Confederacy, claiming he will faithfully defend and protect her. Waxing poetic about peace, rights and equality, he blames the North’s reluctance to grant independence as the cause for war. His noble claims are undermined by his determination that all men are not created equal, and that God created some beings with no rights at all. He sounds patriotic, but his Corner-stone speech reveals an important shift in his loyalty.

That a person could claim peace while pursuing war, claim unity while blaming others, or claim great power while stoking fear, is confusing until you realize Vice President Stevens was a nationalist, not a patriot.

This week our nation votes to elect governors, senators, representatives and council people. We have been arguing about how to display patriotism in the public sphere for years, but this election cycle reveals the slippage in the way we speak about what it means to be Americans. Are we patriots or nationalists? Is one noble, the other destructive? Does it matter what these words signify?

Stevens’ rhetoric prepares the way for his descendants in public service: Self-professed nationalists.

 Many of us love our country, our service members who defend it, the laws that shape it, and the symbols that represent it. We love our mythologies: a nation built on the ideal of liberty worth sacrificing for, that every person has a fair shot to improve with hard work and perseverance. We adore the fact that we overcame great odds, winning our independence, surviving a Civil War, slowly claiming a continent for ourselves, and rescuing Europe not once but twice. We are proud of our track record, and nationalism invites us to reduce it to a story of ascension for one group of people. From a nationalist point of view, the story of America is the story of White Christians who beat the odds. Patriotism, on the other hand, demands that we face our entire history. Patriotism leaves room for righting the course, for correcting mistakes, for challenging a status quo that damages vulnerable people.

Nationalism denotes a shift in loyalty from our evolving country to a specific group of people, united by the perception of shared genes or culture, while patriotism assumes that we can work together since we share a space and, perhaps, ideals. Nationalism boasts superiority over any group of people perceived to be outsiders or “others.” It organizes itself against perceived threats, rather than simply for a nation. Nationalist groups include American white supremacists, Hitler’s Germany, Franco’s Spain and Mussolini’s Italy, because it thrives on fear, blame and the suppression of the humanity of those deemed unworthy. Nationalism guards the door, making sure outsiders cannot bring change, while patriotism upholds ideals, and challenges us to stay true to them.

For a nationalist, making American great again very much means making America white, defining it as white, assuming it to be white, protecting the rights and culture of whites.  

A patriot, on the other hand, remains loyal to the idea of America, aligning herself to the concepts that were uttered in the Preamble to the Declaration. It is true that we have never embodied the ideals penned by Thomas Jefferson; then again, neither did he, so perhaps to be American is to strive for who we hope to be even as we wrestle with who we functionally are.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a patriot. His patriotism spurred him to force us to see the ways that we fall short of our stated ideals. He was so loyal to America that he challenged America to invite all Americans to the dinner table. King, always hopeful, did not primarily rail against our Constitution as a racist document, or even as an artifact exposing our worst hypocrisy. Instead, Dr. King called our Constitution a “promissory note,” and argued that it looms in our collective memory, reminding us that we can start to embody its best principals if only we would commit ourselves to caring about the interest of others as an act of patriotism.

Last week my passenger side mirror was pushed out of alignment. For days, I forgot, and every time I checked for traffic, I glimpsed only a skewed view of the road behind me. My inability to understand my car’s orientation on the road forced me to drive with a handicap. As long as my mirror was jacked up, I couldn’t drive with confidence. As long as our citizens ignore the damage nationalist thinking caused in the past, we can’t make confident decisions about who gets our loyalty in the present. When we mistake nationalism for patriotism, we cannot understand our orientation as Americans who share this land with many, varied, wonderful others. We live handicapped, ignorant of the very history that shapes this moment, oblivious not just to the record behind us but also to our history of thinking and ways of claiming ideals. As we vote, I pray we would take the time to know the difference—past, present and future—between a patriotism that corrects our course and a nationalism that empowers evil.

a break to recover compassion

The news of the week lands hard on our weary hearts. As synagogues grieve and grocery shoppers are gunned down for existing, troops head to the border to confront weary folks walking north. I have so many thoughts about how we got here, where we are headed, and what our “I’m not the problem, you’re the problem” culture means for all of us.

Tonight though, life got in the way. The essay of the week will have to simmer until I find the 5th dimension of time needed to get it all done. Instead of writing, I was present for a hurting person. Knowing what I had to do, I somehow saw that the lament needed a witness for the possibility of ending in hope, rather than despair. Witnessing and bearing the burden of someone’s pain is never the wrong choice.

I will offer this in the space I leave: One of the many casualties found on the side of the road these days is our impulse for compassion. I am not speaking here of compassion-based progressive policies. Instead, I muster the strength to barely whisper: The impulse to move toward a grieving person is not an endorsement of their ideology. Stance taking is not required to acknowledge another person in need. It is not inherently “political” to recognize a person in pain.

We have been hoodwinked into believing we pick teams first, letting that determine who is worthy of empathy or human connection. Can I simply suggest that you fight to free your impulse toward charity? Go ahead and pick sides, get in the arena and advocate for policies you support. In the process though, grab the hand of hurting people as you walk through your day. Lean in and make eye contact, offering a smile to a person waiting in line. Recover your ability to see people, to let compassion or curiosity drive you closer to them, BEFORE you let politics tell you if they are worthy of your belief. Before you weigh the way your compassion will be interpreted by others.

Endorse connection, a human seeing another human, before you decide who you are allowed to hear or see. The lives I get to see up close are working really hard to get through the day. Kindness says little about the righteousness of the recipient, and a great deal about the value of the contributor. Be kind, present, compassionate, and let those connections prevent you from buying the lie that life is about picking sides (even when election day is one week away).