aim higher: the dangers of our gaze

Comparison is the thief of joy, or so I’ve been told. It is certainly difficult to access your own sense of contented belonging if your gaze is always on another. The dangers of Instagram’s self-paparazzi have been well documented. We are all overlooked or left out at times; indeed, social media is both performance art and the gateway to chronic FOMO-syndrome.  No matter how fabulous your weekend was, one glance at Insta will confirm that a fun thing occurred in your universe without you.

These are rough times for a person who believes we were made to serve and delight in creation and the created ones who inhabit it. Stalking the lives of others diminishes the pleasure we take in our own lives. The choices you make seem lackluster when viewed in light of the choice you weren’t given. The problem, it seems to me, is that looking at others invites us to assess how we measure up. Does your fun life expose the blah elements of mine? Does your exciting life expose the boring nature of mine? Does your crowded life expose the loneliness of mine? Our focus on others often leads us to find our own lives wanting, as we realize we fail to measure up. 

It is equally dangerous to gaze at others in a way that assures us that we are more fabulous than anyone around us. Comparison can leave us dissatisfied, but it can also make us self-satisfied. If we give in to our most critical natures, we can weaponize our gaze at others, finding them lacking in every way. This approach allows us to feel great about ourselves, knowing we must belong because we are better than all those other people.

The point, I suppose, is this: When our eyes are trained on others, we find ourselves either diminished or inflated, either in despair or enjoying self-righteous power. Surely focusing on the projected images of others leads to a troubled understanding of self.

On the other hand, I would argue that it is equally difficult to experience joy and freedom if one’s gaze is focused inward. We live in an age in which self-awareness is promoted as a pathway to good health. We are told that to live well with others, we first have to examine and understand ourselves. Self-awareness will lead to healthy boundaries, to self-actualization and to intentional action, right? Sometimes, but not every time.

We know that comparing ourselves to others will not lead us to joy, but we often believe that focusing on self will do the trick. I don’t buy this idea, although I do think we tend to hurt ourselves and others when we have not done the work to know and understand our instincts and biases. The secret is in the approach and the purpose. Instead of examining our biases so that we can serve and enjoy others, we often pursue the magical unicorn of self-care simply for satisfaction. We might engage in long term counseling whose purpose is apparently to make us articulate and self-possessed selfish people. We might learn to focus our gaze inward, eventually believing that everything would be better if we learned to speak our minds and only do the things we want to do. Self-awareness IS indeed important, but it is also a very close neighbor to self-absorption.

How can we be self-aware without becoming self-obsessed? One of the keys is to realize that contrary to popular belief, joy and freedom come neither from measuring up to others nor from focusing only on oneself. Self-awareness is crucial if we hope to live well with others, but self-awareness and agency are not the goals of existence.

It is easy to idealize knowing and loving oneself; indeed, this is a lovely idea until it becomes the end that justifies everything. When love of self loses context, it gets out into the world and destroys communities. My teenagers are sometimes in foul moods, and the core of their grumpiness seems to be rooted in the fact that they have to do junk they don’t want to do. They feel like it is wildly unfair that they would ever have to do anything they didn’t suggest. We tell our kids, “too bad. The world doesn’t revolve around you. This is what it means to be in a family,” or other such truths. Do we live by our own standards though? Well-versed in self-examination, do we begin to believe that joy and freedom are ours for the taking if we can only learn to look inward enough to know what we want, speak it into the world, and then take action to get it? Joy and freedom do not magically appear when we become articulate selfish people.

On the contrary, we live best with others when we live for others to some extent.

As a person who finds independence intoxicating—tempting me to ignore the fact that I was created to thrive with and among others—I know the human condition is best survived together. We cannot find our way by gazing only inwardly or even at others as threats or as #lifegoals. Instead, we live best when we understand how we belong to those around us. Not how we measure up, but how we fit together. The next time life feels lackluster or disappointing, avoid the pitfalls of looking only inward or outward for proof of life. Instead, do the work and take the time to know yourself, your bias, your community and your purpose. Then move toward others, celebrating and improving the communities we share.

aim higher: jack sparrow as a life coach

For the last few months I have been thinking about the gaps between who we hope to be and who we prove to be. To be human is to be hypocritical, so there is a sense in which we could all shrug our shoulders, shake our heads, and say, “guilty, yes…whatever.” And yet. Surely we aren’t willing to settle for such laziness, such defeat. If we are to aim higher, we need to muster a little more concern for how our actions align with our stated values. If anything matters, then everything matters.

In the original Pirates of the Caribbean, a young and painfully brave Will Turner (played by Orlando Bloom), finds himself aiding and abetting a pirate (Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp). Turner finds this despicable, even though he certainly tried to resist the coercion at every turn. Nevertheless and despite his conviction, Turner finds himself in a position he does not think he can live with: He is, in fact, the right hand man of a pirate. He loathes pirates, but here he is.

It is in this critical moment that Jack Sparrow reveals to Turner that he is also, in fact, the son of a pirate. Will Turner’s father was called Bootstrap Bill, and, according to Sparrow, was, “A good man. A great Pirate.” Turner simply cannot accept this idea. His entire being is invested in his rejection of pirate codes and the like. Foolishly, rather than face the truth about his own heritage, he pulls a sword on the Captain. 

Swiftly knocked off his feet by his brilliant would-be victim, Turner finds himself dangling off a sail mast (maybe? I have far exceeded my knowledge of pirate and sailing-adjacent trivia, and heretofore will make up names in order to get through this story), hanging precariously over the ocean below. It is then that Sparrow offers this savvy advice:

“Now as long as you’re just hanging there, pay attention. The only rules that really matter are these: What a man can do, and what a man can’t do. For instance, you can either accept that your father was a pirate AND a good man, or you can’t. But pirate is in your blood boy, so you’ll have to square with that one day.”

Sparrow speaks as a man unwilling to surrender to his own unexamined hypocrisy. He knows the paralysis that comes when a person claims to be one thing but lives as another. He knows that Turner can try to outrun the conflicting identities of his past, but he also knows that eventually, he will have to face them.

We all need a moment where we come face to face with the wisdom of Captain Jack Sparrow. Rather than live as if our hypocrisies are not as egregious as their hypocrisies, why don’t we change our patterns? Each of us is a compilation of the patterns that reveal our priorities. Its true that most of us think our values determine our habits, but for the majority it works the other way round. Our patterns, our habits, our unacknowledged liturgies and rituals—these are the things that reveal who we are and what we care about.

If we want to avoid being diminished by our unacknowledged hypocrisies, we might consider beginning a new pattern of observation. When we begin a daily practice of observing our own behaviors without judgment, we equip ourselves to notice the places where our behaviors and beliefs are out of alignment. Paying attention to ourselves—the way we approach others, not just our own desires and needs—is hard work. It can be exhausting, but the practice of attentive observation allows us to see the gaps between who we hope to be and who we prove to be.

When confronted with our hypocrisies, many of us experience a vague sense of shame. Living under shame is soul-crushing, made even worse when we refuse to look into the source of the shame or to explore possible pathways out of it. Still, many of us stew in this broth of awful. We are neither free enough to align our actions with who we hope to be nor miserable enough to change our daily patterns. Instead, we complain about the toxic state of politics while we disparage acquaintances who disagree with us. We lament the lack of civic engagement while we forget to vote. We decry lackluster work ethics while we bail our kids out of consequences. We worry about the environment while driving giant gas guzzlers in 5 mile loops around our temp-regulated houses. We shake our heads at sex trafficking while we dabble in porn. We roll our eyes at trophies for every kid while we chronically celebrate our dazzlingly exceptional children. We long for meaningful community while we ignore our neighbors. We vilify the fracturing impact of technology while becoming increasingly addicted to its perks.

If we want to aim higher then we must answer Sparrow’s challenge: What can we do and what can’t we do? When observing the world, it is sometimes tempting to either commit to radical change or to completely shut down, convinced nothing can be done to improve. Rather than start a non-profit or move off the grid, I suggest a milder, and much more impactful approach: Have a conversation with yourself about what you can do and what you can’t do.

Do what you can.

Stop living as you can’t.

Everything matters.  

Will we be brave enough to observe our own hypocrisies? Will we commit to paying attention so our actions support the things we value? Or will we continue to dangle out over the ocean, thrown off balance because we refuse to notice the truth of how we live, unaware of the choice before us?

what I've been reading

Yesterday I met a dear friend to watch the documentary,Toni Morrison: Pieces I Am at a small theater in Nashville. Before the film, we met for a drink and talked about all the things. This friend and I stumbled upon each other near or in our 40s, and we have been making up for lost time since. She is brilliant and fierce and compassionate and reflective. She is curious and challenging and knows who she is and isn’t. Time together feels abundant, full of possibilities and lament, hope and outrage. She makes me better.

So does Toni Morrison. I’m so sad her voice has reached its coda. Spending three hours together and with Morrison, we explored ALL the ways to be a human, to love and to hurt, to be torn apart and put back together again. Time well spent.

Of course I am biased. I love books and think words are magnificently powerful. I rarely regret any moment I spend with a book in my hands. In the film, a Morrison scholar, like a precious disciple, suggests that the written word is the only real medium that allows a person to immerse themselves in the skin of another. Books help us to dive deep, to witness and share the thoughts, histories, hopes, fears and emotions of a character. Good characters are precise in a universal kind of way, and he thought Morrison wrote people better than anyone.

In the spirit of losing (and understanding?) ourselves by immersing our thinking in someone else’s context, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve read in the past couple of years. Particularly for those of us hoping to understand and confront the racialized society we live in, these texts help. (And stun, and shatter, and inspire, and undo, and motivate, and educate, and satisfy.)

Happy Reading.

Recent-ish Books Worth Reading in the Quest for Racial Justice

Addressing our Historical Gaps

Stamped From the Beginning Ibram X. Kendi

Academic, thick, and accessible. A well documented and contextualized account of racialized understandings in America.

 

The Color of Compromise Jemar Tisby

History of the Church’s action and inaction regarding racial oppression. Truth-telling that demands the church reckon with our past.

 

Stony the Road Henry Louis Gates, Jr

Academic essays and photos discussing the history of black resistance. Gates is a rare scholar determined to teach us all, convinced that his work is relevant and meaningful for each of us. He is right.

 

Waking Up White Debbie Irving

Personal account of a wealthy white woman studying the origins of racial inequities interwoven with research explaining the history of those disparities (informative and personal).

 

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria Beverly Daniel Tatum

Academic, but from a social science lens mixed with observational research. The 2017 Introduction is one of the best pieces I’ve read on historically contextualizing our current moment.

The Color of Law Richard Rothstein

Deep dive into the history of segregation at the hands of our government. Academic but accessible.

Why I’m No Longer Talking (to White People) About Race Reni Eddo-Lodge

Clear about her own boundaries and determined to educate, she covers the reality of and paths of resistance against structural racism in Britain. Includes a fabulous chapter on the nature of the interaction between feminist and antiracist activists.

  

Personal Accounts of Experiencing/Overcoming Prejudice and Valuable Advice on How to Engage the Work

How to be an Antiracist Ibram X. Kendi

Just got it…can’t describe it yet but expect to devour it shortly. He is an incredible thinker and communicator.

White Awake Daniel Hill

Story of a well-meaning, woke-ish pastor who tried to start a multicultural church in Chicago, and learned a lot through his failures as he learned to be antiracist as a Christ follower.

I’m Still Here Austin Channing Brown

Personal account of the cost of being “the only one” in many white, church/non prof spaces. A love letter to black women saying, “I see you. I hear you. We’ve got this.”

 Between the World and Me Ta-nehisi Coates

A letter from a black writer to his son about being in his skin in America. Morrison called it “required reading.” Wow.

Dream With Me John Perkins

Reflection on how to reconcile communities without hurting them from a legend in community development.

 

Finally, Fiction

I’ll only say here that I recently reread Morrison’s Love and Home, and both are brilliant. The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon and Beloved get all the love. They are indeed wonderful. But so are the others. Pick any book she wrote and wrestle/read your way through. You might just come away understanding your town, the people who share it, and yourself, a little better.