aim higher: on guns and manners

This weekend dozens of lives were lost to what is often called “senseless gun violence.” Having experienced the horror of watching a loved one lose his life, I know pain can be significantly worse when the death feels senseless. I grieve with the families who lost sons and moms and cousins and neighbors, all the more because the grief, still so new, feels infinitely avoidable, reversible even. The ‘senseless’ nature of what appears to be random violence strengthens the shock, and we sit stunned: surely this could not have happened. Again. 

But it has, and we can argue about the many ways to make sense of what has happened, and what continues to happen—over 250 times in 2019—in our country. The shooter in El Paso offered his own attempt at making sense of his actions, posting his thoughts about the world and what is wrong with it. He, echoing certain sentiments of our President, believes that people who are not white are what is wrong with our country. To that end, making all the sense in the world, he decided to kill as many of the problem-makers as he could. Makes sense.

Others blame the power of the NRA and the strong legislation they have passed for decades to protect the free will and rights of gun owners. They will make sense of the deaths by blaming the lack of universal background checks for gun buyers, or trade show loopholes, or bump stocks, or gaping deficits in our mental health coverage and treatment. From this perspective, the resulting violence makes sense. 

I’d like to offer another explanation in an effort to make sense of the world around us. It fits here in this series examining the gaps between the things we know to be true and the things we continue to accept, senseless as they are. Outright violence toward others makes sense when we recognize that as a society, we have chosen good manners over the good. Despite the fact that we believe some speech is uncivil, hateful, and even dangerous, most of us rarely choose to speak up when we witness it face to face. Instead, we stay quiet, preferring good manners, and leave the hate lingering, unchecked, in the air.

We, collectively, prefer peace keeping to peace making. 

Imagine men, gathered around a grill in a backyard, kids playing nearby. One of them shakes his head and whistles when another mentions the name of a young and attractive teacher at the neighborhood school. The whistler goes on to say, “I wish she’d teach me a thing or two.” The men laugh, some uncomfortably, knowing that teacher has been objectified in demeaning ways.

Imagine a group of women discussing a friend whose kids go to a school with a wide variety of races, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds. They say, “Can you imagine? Think about all the bad influences the kids will have to deal with. They won’t be able to go to playdates or anything!” The women nod knowingly, while a few just look down, uncertain how to respond to the prejudices and assumptions the other women accept about a community they don’t know. 

In both of these instances, we often choose to let inappropriate speech go unchecked. When we stay silent—even knowing it is wrong—we honor the evil spoken by others. We believe the lie that it would be bad manners to express discomfort with another person’s dehumanizing stance. We assume we would be the ‘bad guy’ if we speak up, and instead protect the person whose bigoted perspectives and poor assumptions abuse an entire gender, race or class. 

Schools now teach that we all have a part to play in stopping bullies; indeed, bystanders have many options if they want to help. And yet, how often do adults simply look down, mouths closed, while speech that demeans others is muttered around us? We tend to think more highly of ourselves and our good citizenship than we deserve. We like to think we are like Spiderman: good, responsible stewards of all the power we have been given. Instead though, I’m afraid we horde our power and abandon our values if they threaten our comfort.  

I understand that no one wants to be the jerk who makes the barbeque uncomfortable by confronting the sexist man demeaning his kid’s teacher. On the other hand, Seriously?! We would rather not say a word of caution than to allow a “great guy” to freely and shamelessly objectify a woman while his daughters play nearby? This kind of thinking helps preserve the hateful thinking of those who demean and hurt others. When we privilege the status quo and our comfort over the safety and dignity of all people, we create environments where a white supremacist mass murderer can believe his thoughts echo the thoughts of most other white Americans. Instead of normalizing words that dismiss or hurt others, could we normalize challenging such thoughts? Could we all have the courage to speak up and say, “What do you mean by that?”, or “I don’t agree; can you help me understand what you are suggesting?”

Last night our neighbors stopped by, and as the conversation turned to the killings of the weekend, we sensed a shared desperation: What do we do? What can I do to stop this madness? Voting, lobbying and education were mentioned; marching and calling out in protest was suggested. Perhaps the hardest, bravest thing each of us can do is to simply challenge the lies told in our presence. Take responsibility for what is uttered around you. Sure, start a non-profit, and call your Senator. In the meantime though, be the person you hope you are. The next time a friend or acquaintance says a terrible thing about other people, speak up immediately to challenge that assumption. Instead of thinking it is bad manners to “cause a scene”, make it bad manners to be a white supremacist. Make it bad manners to tell a racist or sexist joke.

If we stop our silence, perhaps we can help identify those who want to annihilate certain types of people, getting them help before they hurt others. Their destructive thinking should stick out in all the worst ways, not get lost in what a lot of people say because no one ever asks them to stop.

what the liberty bell teaches

 In 1751, the Pennsylvania Assembly commissioned a large bell to mark the 50th anniversary of the state’s original constitution, written by William Penn in 1701. The bell’s inscription was taken from Leviticus, a Book in the Pentateuch, or the first five Books of the Bible. It reads: “Proclaim Liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Visit Philadelphia today and you will see—you might even feel—that the Liberty Bell embodies our national pride and spirit. We believe in the message the bell represents, and we love the idea of freedom, ringing loudly throughout the land and reminding us all of who we hope to be.

This week, as we eat soggy pasta salad and slurp crisp slices of watermelon, toasting our nation and celebrating our unique commitment to freedom, we will think fondly of this liberty. We will lift our eyes skyward, searching for every exploding light, and feel pride at the idea that liberty means something to us Americans. We will remember that we one day decided, collectively, that it was worth sacrificing everything in order to be free. We will continue to boast even now about the lengths we will take to protect our freedom. Don’t tread on us.

 It is true that America loves its liberty; it is also true that American notions of liberty have always coincided with American practices of exclusion. American liberty has an asterisk, for it has historically meant freedom for some and definitely not for all.

When early Pennsylvanians decided to make a state house bell whose toll would remind people of liberty, they choose words that captured the expansive concept of liberty: liberty only works if it is for all of us. The irony, of course, is that in 1701, in 1751, and even in 1851 “all the inhabitants” of the land were neither liberated nor proclaiming any such thing. This conflict is the tricky problem with American memory and celebrations of our history. We cling to our stated values, while ignoring—erasing even—those not deemed worthy of inclusion.

30 years after the Pennsylvania bell was commissioned, the New Hampshire state convention named the enemy of liberty, saying, “The love of power is so alluring that few have ever been able to resist its bewitching influence.” New Hampshirites seemed to know that liberty requires ongoing sacrifice because power and greed are equally alluring ideals. What the Pennsylvania delegates failed to recognize is that proclaiming liberty for all inhabitants requires shared sacrifice; otherwise the freedom of the many will be sacrificed for the liberty of the few. Liberty and power must be held in tension, especially in communities where equality is espoused.  

Liberty, first dreamed up by those early signers of the Declaration, and then made real by the brave men who died for the freedom to govern themselves, was costly. When a young United States of America celebrated its 20th Independence Day, many Americans were right to toast our independence from tyrannical Britain. Many other inhabitants of America must have choked on the celebratory cries, knowing those who rejected the tyranny of Europe had no trouble at all using abusive power to limit those around them.

The Liberty Bell, as we now remember it, as a beacon of hope, of equality, of shared sacrifice, did not come to signify these expansive and inclusive ideals until resisting voices took the Bell at its word, and reclaimed it as a symbol for those previously excluded from the idea of American freedom. Abolitionists popularized and made famous the Liberty Bell as an American icon, and they did so simply by calling Americans to be who they claimed to be: Be people willing to pursue liberty for all folks, rejecting abusive power as a means to personal liberty.

Those resisting voices were accused of desecrating the intent of the inscription and the meaning of the bell in American history. However, those abolitionists were deeply loyal to the values celebrated by Americans. History is complicated, and they knew liberty and power were not the same thing. They knew our hypocrisy would destroy us unless we began to realize that liberty for all requires limits be placed on personal power.

Today, these familiar ideals will continue to divide us as a society unless we hear from all those who talk about American liberty, what it means, who its for, and how it works. We cannot reserve liberty for a few while many suffer. As we celebrate Independence Day, perhaps we should think not just about the Liberty Bell, its history and inscription, but also its crack, and the obvious vulnerabilities in our shared history. We need to elevate resisting voices who remind us that we all have a claim to liberty, just as we all have to sacrifice in order to live in community with those around us.

Despite the problematic nature of many of our American symbols and the historical erasure embedded within them, the Liberty Bell holds lessons for all of us who care about our country: The presence of a crack does not diminish the value of the symbol. Resisting voices who help us understand the many implications of liberty do not dilute the power of patriotism. Understanding our deeply rooted hypocrisy does not detract from our striving to form a more perfect union. Acknowledging our mistakes does not destroy our pride as Americans.

Facing a complete history, which welcomes every perspective of who we have been and who we might become, which celebrates our symbols even as we notice their flaws, is perhaps the most American way to celebrate the birth of our nation. After all, we are a country born out of the notion that all men are created equal, and we cherish this idea even as we often fail to act on this core belief. To be American is to know big dreams are realized with small steps and shared sacrifices. This 4th of July, I want to believe our hopes for liberty and equality can coexist, and that they matter enough for us to notice how we fail to live up to our own American dreams. Learning America’s history—the noble, the hypocritical, the celebrated and the erased—issues an invitation to all of us to sacrifice for the stunning American idea that every inhabitant is created equally and for liberty. What a dream.

on grit, and tripping

This week, a repost (with a few mild changes), from last spring. For all of us in our wildly different contexts, it is helpful to remember that every good path presents some trips and falls.

Good stories struggle. They have moments when it is not clear that the good guys will win, or even survive. They have heroines who compromise or take a stand in the service of a long-term goal. They have heroes who persevere against all odds, getting dirty in the process. Most of us want to be part of our own good story. Why is it then that we often lose perspective when our journey becomes imperiled? We tend to throw up our hands, assume the end has come, and walk away. 

We Americans like to think we are models of courage and hard work, but hiding within this narrative are cynics who give up at the first sign of discouragement.  Even though we know struggle is part of all progress—often the most valuable part—we are shocked and consider quitting when we come upon unexpected struggle. It is not unreasonable to argue that many lack the grit required to stay the course when things seem impossible. This is why so many schools and consultants overuse the word so often. “Grit” is the hipster version of determination. It is the ability to stay at it even when the odds feel stacked against you. 

This idea is problematic though, because encountering difficulty is not the same thing as the odds being stacked against you. Difficulty is part of life. Trials come. Life rarely moves in a linear path of ascension. Only a collective and sustained cognitive dissonance allows us to live amidst the sadness and decay of others while expecting sunshine and roses for ourselves. Part of the reason we struggle when we encounter difficulty is that it often catches us off guard. We observe others, thinking, “I am so inspired by the way she struggled through that trial, learning and growing in the process to become an even better version of herself.” When we face a struggle, however, our response often involves foul language, throwing things, and giving up because it is too hard. If we learn to pay attention to the stories of those around us, we might nurture our ability to anticipate and live through our own roadblocks. In addition to grit, we need to develop a greater capacity to contextualize our hopes and dreams with the stories of others.

Understanding that set backs accompany progress has a collective impact beyond the obvious personal benefit. As a society, we need to develop stamina for staying the course even when it is hard. The city of Nashville seems committed to rolling out the red carpet to every industry, developer or entrepreneur looking for a place to land. This is mostly wonderful; however, it is hard to become the “IT CITY” without displacing many of the residents of the previously “ignored city.” Gentrification is hard. Affordable housing is complicated. This doesn’t mean we stop trying to find a way forward though! Nashville is off the growth chart, and we need the grit as a society to create health in all our new dimensions. We need to contextualize the positive aspects of our growth with housing inequities and displacement, and then find the grit to keep creatively addressing our affordable housing deficit. The presence of frustration means neither that progress is impossible nor that we are powerless to correct course. 

 Immigration is complicated. According to some, we have an employment and crime crisis in America because of it. According to others, we have inefficient court systems, mistrust between police and immigrant communities and poor oversight of employers’ hiring practices. Because immigration in complicated, and we as a society typically lack the capacity to sustain effort in the face of difficulty, I am concerned we will continue to demonize asylum seekers, traumatize their children, reduce Americaness to whiteness, and then walk away away in defeat, fear and isolation. In this moment we need leaders who understand that terrible mistakes are part of any success. We must listen to voices who understand that America often finds itself in unfamiliar territory with no clear solution, and then we find the grit to stay the course and keep working together.

Last summer my family and I went hiking in western North Carolina, and it was magical to watch my kids go from grumbling-whiners-forced-out-of-their-technology-caves into honest-to-God-frolickers. They frolicked. Ran and skipped and played and laughed. They handled the ups and downs with ease, jumping from rock to rock across rivers, crossing every root, stumbles and all. Then we approached the final ascent to the waterfall. It was muddy and slick, dangerous even. Quite steep. When we got to the top, the trail became a four-inch thick sloppy mud fest. Our shoes sank, our steps slid, and we nearly missed the majesty of the waterfall because we were covered in mud. Most of us overlooked the mess to enjoy the beauty, but our tween immediately started demanding I replace his nice shoes.  He said it was all my fault for taking him on this dumb hike. Grit gone.

Where did all the frolickers go? The beautiful truth is that you can’t get to the waterfall without going through the mud! The presence of hard and wonderful things are not mutually exclusive. We need to expect the setback in the midst of forward progress, for it will always come.

Many of us long for an encounter with beauty. We desire meaningful success. We strive to find peace. But we often think we can get there without getting muddy, without losing our footing along the way. The presence of the hard does not eliminate the possibility of the good. Keep living in the present, taking each step, breathing in and out, and remember that every hard moment is just that, a moment.  It is not your entire story. If you want to live a “good story” kind of life, develop a capacity for living through hard things. It is wildly unlikely that you will find the depth of life’s beauty without encountering pain in the process. Stop turning back, and learn to navigate the mud before the waterfall.